Grammar Gremlins: To Be or Not To Be
Passive Voice vs. Passive Writing
Have you ever gotten a contest entry back with every instance of the verb to be circled and marked passive voice? Have you had unkind thoughts about the judge? Me, too.
The verb to be is not inherently passive. It’s not a very exciting verb, but it’s a basic building block of the English language (and most others), and you are allowed to use it whenever you need it.
You are also allowed to use passive voice when you need it, but it helps to understand exactly what that means. Passive voice is a technical term. Passive writing is slow, dull, and just plain boring. The two often overlap, but they are not the same.
Remember back in elementary school (a long time ago for some of us) when we learned the parts of a sentence? Some of us even learned to diagram them on the blackboard, but I won’t make you do that. Just remember that a complete sentence consists of a subject and a verb, with or without an object. We can pile on as many modifiers and phrases as the market will bear, but it’s the relationship between subject, verb and object that determines active or passive voice. (Golly gee, I think I smell chalk dust.)
The dog (subject) chased (verb) the ball (object) — this is active voice. The subject of the sentence is performing the action. The ball was chased by the dog — this is passive voice. The ball is now the grammatical subject of the sentence, but it is not the active agent — that’s still the dog.
Voice is as simple as that. If the subject of the sentence performs the action, whatever that may be, we have active voice. If the subject of the sentence is acted upon, the voice is passive. (Aha, chalk dust is smelled by me.)
Confusion over voice probably stems from the fact that it’s just about impossible to construct a sentence in the passive voice without some form of the verb to be. Is, are, was, should be, has been — good old to be shows up every time.
To be has many other uses, even if it isn’t the most exciting verb around. Sometimes it’s still the best choice. The woman we were looking for was blonde, not brunette. We were walking in the park when the elephant stepped on George. We are writers.
We are writers of commercial fiction, and we can usually find a stronger, more active, more interesting verb than to be. And nine times out of ten (at least), active voice is more interesting, more involving, and more descriptive (without the need for the dreaded adverb) than passive voice.
Here is a horrible example of passive gone wild:
The room was entered by a man. A woman was found in the room by him. Clothing was removed by them. Love was made. Cigarettes were smoked. The door was opened by her angry husband. His pistol was fired. The lovers were missed by the gunfire. The mirror was broken by a bullet. Bad luck was had by all.
As a grammar joke, pretty funny. As serious narrative, pretty much unreadable. A good argument for avoiding the passive voice. (We’ll talk about sentence fragments another time.)
We can’t always avoid passive voice; we don’t always want to. In some situations passive voice is useful, even necessary. The choice often depends on what information you want to include, and what element you want to emphasize.
When the action is important and the agent performing it is unimportant or obvious: Rain is predicted for this afternoon. (By the weatherman, or some computer — they usually get it wrong anyway). Maxwell was arrested for murder. (We don’t need the arresting officer’s name – it’s the arrest that’s important.) The mail was delivered before noon.
When the agent performing the action is indefinite or unknown: That tree was cut down before we ever decided to build here. (We don’t know who cut it down, and it doesn’t matter.) My bicycle was stolen last week. (This is technically passive, but it still seems more to the point than Someone stole my bike last week. Or, depending on your mood, you might go with Some colorful adjective obscenity stole my expletive bike!)
When we want to emphasize the agent by putting it at the end of the sentence: My all-time favorite love story was written by Marjorie Romancewriter. Now, if Marjorie wrote something less predictable, we might want to put that at the end: Marjorie Romancewriter wrote the screenplay for my favorite slasher flick.
In nonfiction, passive voice is sometimes used to maintain an air of detachment, often as part of a very long sentence guaranteed to put the reader to sleep. We are writers of commercial fiction; let’s avoid this one entirely. After all, our readers should be wooed with the most entertaining writing we can imagine.
The long-standing advice to use active voice as often as possible still holds, especially in commercial fiction, where clarity and fast pace are always important. But don’t be afraid to use passive voice now and then when it serves your purpose. Don’t be afraid to use to be when you need it. Like said, to be is nearly invisible; now and then the verb is not the most important part of the sentence.
Passive writing has no technical definition, but we all know it when we see it, in the books we don’t finish, in the manuscripts we are hard pressed to critique without a total rewrite. As for that judge, she may have been wrong about passive voice, but she may have recognized passive writing. Take another look before you toss that entry in the back of the closet.
This article was written by Kay Hudson. Her favorite grammar books, including The Careful Writer and Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins, were written by Theodore M. Bernstein and are highly recommended by her. The passive love story was inspired by The Comic Toolbox, an excellent book written by John Vorhaus. Kay hopes this grammar rant was enjoyed by you.