Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Dreaded Passive Voice

My writing often suffers from the passive voice disease. I think it is because I am a fairly passive person, but I am growing more assertive the older I become. Anyway, in the final revisions of my book, I decided my main goal must be minimize passive voice. It has been a long time since I took an Enlgish class and I needed to brush up on a few things. Here are a few of the more helpful things I found.
From UNC online handouts. Once you know what to look for, passive constructions are easy to spot. Look for a form of "to be" (is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. (The past participle is a form of the verb that typically, but not always, ends in "-ed." Some exceptions to the "-ed" rule are words like "paid" (not "payed") and "driven." (not "drived"). Here's a sure-fire formula for identifying the passive voice:

form of "to be" + past participle = passive voice

For example:
The metropolis has been scorched by the dragon's fiery breath.
When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her remarriage.

And now to make something simple more complicated. (from same above website)
NOTE: forms of the word "have" can do several different things in English. For example, in the sentence "John has to study all afternoon," "had" is not part of a past-tense verb. It's a modal verb, like "must," "can," or "may"—these verbs tell how necessary it is to do something (compare "I have to study" versus "I may study"). And forms of "be" are not always passive, either—"be" can be the main verb of a sentence that describes a state of being, rather than an action. For example, the sentence "John is a good student" is not passive; "is" is simply describing John's state of being.

The moral of the story: don't assume that any time you see a form of "have" and a form of "to be" together, you are looking at a passive sentence. "I have to be on time for the concert," for example, is not passive. Ask yourself whether there is an action going on in the sentence and, if so, whether whoever or whatever is doing that action is the subject of the sentence. In a passive sentence, the object of the action (e.g., the road) will be in the subject position at the front of the sentence. There will be a form of be and a past participle. If the subject appears at all, it will usually be at the end of the sentence, often in a phrase that starts with "by" (e.g., "by the chicken").
The above means I owe Meredith from the Hatrack Forums an apology. She asked me to critique her novel summary and I made a comment about passive voice. Some of what I marked may have been (and probably was) just fine. It also makes me feel better to know that not all of my have's, is, will be's are signs of poor writing. Whew! What a relief.

And finally from way down on the UNC site:
  • Look for the passive voice: "to be" + a past participle (usually, but not always, ending in "-ed")
  • If you don't see both components, move on.
  • Does the sentence describe an action? If so, where is the actor? Is he/she/it in the grammatical subject position (at the front of the sentence) or in the object position (at the end of the sentence, or missing entirely)?
  • Does the sentence end with "by..."? Many passive sentences include the actor at the end of the sentence in a "by" phrase, like "The ball was hit by the player" or "The shoe was chewed up by the dog." "By" by itself isn't a conclusive sign of the passive voice, but it can prompt you to take a closer look.

  • Is the doer/actor indicated? Should you indicate him/her/it?
  • Does it really matter who's responsible for the action?
  • Would your reader ask you to clarify a sentence because of an issue related to your use of the passive?
  • Do you use a passive construction in your thesis statement?
  • Do you use the passive as a crutch in summarizing a plot or history, or in describing something?
  • Do you want to emphasize the object?

If you decide that your sentence would be clearer in the active voice, switch the sentence around to make the subject and actor one. Put the actor (the one doing the action of the sentence) in front of the verb.
Here is a nice site you can go and practice changing sentences from passive to active voice. We all know that practice is the only way to make it perfect.

Here are more sites that you may find helpful.
Choosing When to Use Passive or Active Voice
Simple Practice PDF
The Passive Voice  This one makes me laugh. "We find an overabundance of the passive voice in sentences created by...[people who wish to] to avoid responsibility for actions taken."
Brush up information on The Participle


  1. Great resources and links, though I think the UNC material is a little confusing. Technically the term "passive voice" refers only to the attempt to downplay who is acting. Their explanation about participles seems to me to excessively complicate the matter. But then, I'm an editor, not a grammarian.

    Sometimes folks use the term "passive" when what they mean is the verb choices are weak or bland. Using participles and perfect tenses is also less immediate for sure. But I find saying "better verb?" or "simplify the tense here" is usually more helpful feedback to give a CP with those sorts of issues.

  2. Great post Charity. Excellent resources. Passive voice and gerunds are the first thing I go after when I revise a ms. Another site I like is English practice/active-passive

    I have a little something for you over on my blog. Swing by when you have the chance! http://vrbarkowski.blogspot.com/

  3. Now that was downright technical. Sounds like you should be teaching English grammar instead of cooking. Some good info for us grammatically challenged folks.

  4. Haha, I have to admit that originally this post included a line something like this, "Are you as confused as I am?" However I figured that would not look so bright, so I took it out and kept browsing sites until it started to make sense to me.

    In high school English was my favorite subject, but that was quite a while ago and I need some brush up lessons. :)

  5. To be or not to be... I couldn't resist. Thanks for the tips.


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