A Crash Course in Passive Voice, Part 1: What It’s Not

Hey gang! Let’s talk about passive voice, because as writers we’re often told to avoid it – but there’s confusion about what it actually is.

Also because you know I can’t resist a chance to yammer on about English, hence my long Twitter thread on “incorrect” uses of the word “literally.”

So let’s talk about passive voice. Rather, let’s talk about what passive voice isn’t.

I think the confusion stems back to elementary school. A teacher might’ve told you you could recognize passive voice because of the to-be verb. Which is partially true! To-be is involved in passive voice.

(Note: to-be includes be, being, been, is, am, are, was, were.)

BUT. The to-be verb does not always signal passive voice. In fact – don’t quote me on this, because I haven’t done the research and I don’t have the data to back this up – I’d bet the to-be verb does not signal passive voice most of the time.

This is because to-be functions as a linking verb and an auxiliary (helping) verb.

(There are EVEN MORE uses of to-be, but we’re going to focus on these two for today.)

As a linking verb, to-be links the subject with a complement, i.e. something that describes the subject.

For example, in this sentence

Edna Fisher was the Chosen One

“the Chosen One” describes the subject “Edna.” The to-be verb “was” links the subject and complement to show how they’re related (they’re one and the same). So! This is a descriptive sentence, not passive voice.

(Disclaimer: sentences where to-be is a linking verb should be approached with caution in fiction for their own reasons. More on that another time.)

As an auxiliary verb, or a helping verb, to-be helps in the formation of different tenses.

(Have and do also perform this function.)

This is sort of an oddity with English, because in many other languages verbs conjugate to show different tenses – no helping verbs needed!

Please stand by as E goes on a tangent explaining the formation of different tenses in Koine Greek before realizing that probably isn’t necessary in an intro post to passive voice in English.

Ahem. Anyway.

While we do some verb conjugation in English (e.g. adding -ed to regular verbs to form past tense), most of the time we use helping verbs. Take a look at this chart:

Present Simple
Edna knits
Past Simple
Edna knitted
Future Simple
Edna will knit
Present Continuous
Edna is knitting
Past Continuous
Edna was knitting
Future Continuous
Edna will be knitting
Present Perfect
Edna has knitted
Past Perfect
Edna had knitted
Future Perfect
Edna will have knitted
Present Perfect Continuous
Edna has been knitting
Past Perfect Continuous
Edna had been knitting
Future Perfect Continuous
Edna will have been knitting
Don’t be scared, kids. Tenses are friends, not food! Oh, wait. Wrong thing.

Half our tenses in English use the to-be verb normally, so this is again not necessarily indicative of passive voice. That said, to-be is also used as a helping verb in constructing passive voice, so this is where you’re likely to get confused!

Here’s an example. Both sentences are in the same tense (past continuous), but the first is active and the second is passive.

Edna was knitting a scarf.

A scarf was being knitted by Edna.

Notice that Edna is the active agent of the first sentence (she does the verb). The scarf is the passive object of the sentence (it has the verb done to it). This sentence also looks exactly like what we would expect from past continuous: to-be (was) + verb (knitting).

In the second sentence, however, the scarf becomes the grammatical subject – it’s in first position and we form our verb tense around it. (For example, if there was more than one scarf, we’d say “the scarves were being knitted by Edna.”)

BUT. Even though the scarf has become the grammatical subject, it’s still passive – it’s not actively doing the knitting: it’s passively having the knitting done to it. This is what we mean by passive voice.

But more about that next time. [TV documentary announcer voice] WHEN WE RETURN TO A CRASH COURSE IN PASSIVE VOICE: What Passive Voice Is.

In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions, either in the comments below or on Twitter!

Read the whole series on passive voice!

5 thoughts on “A Crash Course in Passive Voice, Part 1: What It’s Not

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