When and how to avoid passive voice
Passive voice is one of those things people argue about in the writing industry—mostly whether it should be used or not. I’ve written an article about the rules for was and were in writing, but I’m going to delve into the broader topic a little more and discuss what it means to write with passive voice, as well as when it should be avoided and how.
What’s the difference?
Passive voice isn’t grammatically incorrect, nor is it something you’ll almost never see in a book. Your typical reader won’t exactly slam a book down and fold their arms across their chest and say, “Amateur writer! Wasted my money on this thing.” So, why is it a big deal?
Passive voice, first of all, is simply a sentence in which an object is acting on the subject in a sentence.
The dog was chased by me.
The mail was picked up by the little girl each day.
The plum was eaten.
I chased the dog.
The little girl picked up the mail.
He ate the plum.
Passive verbs are typically “to be” verbs, but the main problem lies in the sentences where the subject of the sentence becomes the object. Basically, the thing doing something becomes the thing to which something is done.
This isn’t an official phrase, but in all honesty, I don’t know what it would be called other than past progressive or past participle verb forms. So, for the sake of this article, we’ll call it passive language. Now, this isn’t what I just talked about. In fact, in a previous version of this article, I blanketed it under the same thing (passive voice), but it has been quite a while, and I try to update things when I can.
Is this what everyone is talking about?
Passive language is commonly the addressed no-no in writing. Whether someone was doing something or not has become an issue that is, to some, considered passive voice. It’s not. It’s a verb form. “She was walking home today.” “Yesterday, I was calling your sister.”
Those sentences are “passive language.” No, the object is not acting on the subject. What’s happening, however, is a style choice that means the same thing as a more direct alternative. I’ve heard some call it lazy writing. Others, including me, have called it passive voice. I think the main issue here is that it sounds passive.
Think of it this way. If your parental figure (or spouse) asks you why you didn’t do the dishes, there are two ways (in a number of dialects and varieties) to answer. You can say, “I was gonna…” and likely imagine yourself shying away as you say it, or you can say, “I will,” and the image in your head is likely more direct, less passive.
Depending on the image you created in your head, you might have understood what I’m getting at. The way words are written can define how they’re perceived by the reader. My article on the to-be verbs in particular go over their grammatical meaning, but in this article, we’re only going over the more general side of it all.
So, should I keep it or…
What do you think? As with everything, moderation is key. You don’t want to fill your manuscript with the same word—was—because that’s repetitive and noticeable, but you don’t want to try to change them all for the sake of removing them. So, what do you think? Will it benefit your sentence to be more direct? Or, if your sentence is passive, meaning the object is acting on the subject, is there a reason you’re doing that?
Ask yourself because, in the end, it’s your book and your voice. You can always accept others’ opinions if you agree with them, but see what you can do about it first.
How can we stop it?
“Was” and “were” aren’t the only “to be” verbs that are commonly found in passive voice and passive language. If you follow the link I provided above, you’ll learn a little about past participle/past progressive, and it will show you more about “has been” and “will be going” and others that fall under the “to be” category. It’s not always a bad thing, passive voice/language. Like anything else, it has a purpose. The problem, however, is seeing it constantly.
I was walking to grandma’s, ready to taste the gingerbread she would have pulled out of the oven by now. The rocks were kicked by my foot, which still hurt a little after dropping my book on it. I was looking at the ground, counting every rock I kicked, when I heard my name in the distance and the familiar smell of ginger and butter wafted into my nose.
Almost every sentence is passive, in both ways I’ve defined. Most might easily point out every passive verb in there. Now, let’s fix it a bit:
I was walking to grandma’s, ready to taste the gingerbread she should have pulled out of the oven by now. I kicked rocks so they rolled in front of me, though my foot still hurt from this morning. I counted every rock I kicked to pass the time, staring at the ground, but then I heard my name in the distance as the familiar smell of ginger and butter wafted into my nose.
I could write this paragraph in many different ways. This is far from a prize-winning scene, but it’s simply being used as an example. If you’ll notice, I didn’t change the first sentence; however, the paragraph itself is a bit better and changing the sentences allowed me to add a little more information or take away unnecessary information where it didn’t work well in its passive/indirect form. So, why didn’t I change that first sentence?
When to use those to-be verbs
Like I said, it is not to be avoided at all costs. It’s not improper grammar, and it’s not a dead form of writing. It’s a style and every style should be used with purpose. In most forms, passive language (not voice) is a form of progressive writing. “Is going,” “was going,” “had been going” are all forms of progression, which means something is happening. You could say, “I walked to grandma’s, ready to taste the gingerbread . . .” and you could continue in the present moment that way. That’s not wrong. You could also use the alternative form because it is progressive. You’re doing that action in that moment. You’re still doing it. This is a judgment call on the writer’s part. If you want to use active voice, do it. Practice. Write it both ways, read it both ways, but don’t stare at it for eight hours before deciding whether to remove the was and change the gerund.
Don’t take my explanations as reasons to use this stuff.
Don’t use passive voice in excess because, as I showed you, it weakens a sentence by making the subject the object. Passive voice can be a characteristic and it can weaken a character. If you have a character who is weak-minded or insecure, this might be a developing tactic, but watch out. Passive voice is draining to read when it’s there all the time. Choose wisely and change up your verb style. Don’t depend on how you use a verb to develop your characters. That’s not their main function. It’s a side effect.
If you’ve ever taken a photo with purpose, think about the angle. Would you take a photo of a small child during a photo shoot by standing above them? I hope not. Not without a specific pose occurring, anyway. (There are exceptions, but this isn’t a photography lesson.) This angle makes the child look insignificant and small because this is the angle at which they’re always seen. Get on their level or even look up. Make them look proud, young, and resilient. Making your subject the object is doing the same thing. The action they’re doing is, in a way, still happening to them. They aren’t exactly doing the action. Give them the stage and let them do something. They are the center of attention in that sentence. If they are doing the action, don’t take it away from them. Some of you might think this will prevent you from creating variety in your sentences, but there are multiple ways to accomplish that. Don’t make this a path to sentence variety. It’s not a good path.
Same with language. Indirect language. Passive language. Whatever you want to call it.
The tricky truth about passive voice
Yes, there’s a trick. Not every “to be” verb means something is passive. “To be” is a verb, but it’s not always a passive verb. That’s why I specified a difference between passive language and passive voice.
This is the same for “has,” “have,” and “had.” If you have something or if you have to do something, the sentence including “have” makes the action a necessity. It provides urgency. But, if you have wondered what someone’s feet looked like and it’s a current action, “have” is probably being used indirectly.
The best way to figure this out is to look for the main noun in your sentence. Who or what is the subject? Are they at the front of the sentence? Are they doing the action? Or is the action occurring “to” them? When you’re writing with past progressive, are they walking or doing something in that moment or did they do it already?
Another hard-to-find form of passive voice is when the object isn’t in the sentence. “I was hit.” Are you the subject? Is this active voice? No. Something hit you. You didn’t do the hitting. The action is being done to you. “Chester hit me.” There. You are the object.
Overcoming passive voice is something you need to practice to perfect, and even then, you’ll miss things. It’s okay. Passive voice is your acquaintance. Indirect/passive language is your friend. Just don’t make either of them your lifelong soulmate.