A Crash Course in Passive Voice, Part 2: What It Is

Hey gang! On Wednesday I went full grammar nerd and wrote about passive voice – what it isn’t, what we sometimes confuse for it. Now that we know what passive voice isn’t, let’s talk about what passive voice is.

Let’s start with where we ended on Wednesday, as a refresher.

The tl;dr version is this: passive voice is when the passive object (the thing having the verb done to it) becomes the grammatical subject. Take for example this sentence.

The knitting needles were wielded by Edna.

(Btdubs, you didn’t read that wrong. Edna wields some badass, stabtastic knitting needles.)

Here, “the knitting needles” are the grammatical subject, but they’re not actively doing the wielding; they’re passively having the wielding done to them. Ta-da! Passive voice.

Actual footage of E resisting the urge to talk about middle voice in Koine Greek, where the knitting needles could be wielding themselves based on verb conjugation.

How can you recognize passive voice, other than getting your grammar nerd on and thinking about subjects and objects? The zombie test!

The zombie test is one of the most helpful things I’ve ever seen for figuring out passive voice. If you see a to-be verb and aren’t sure whether or not the sentence is passive voice, insert “by zombies” after the verb. If the verb phrase still makes sense, you likely have passive voice. “Zombies” answers the question “who is doing the verb?”

In our example sentence, you don’t need to do this (unless you want to), because “Edna” answers the question “who is doing the verb?” Often, however, passive sentences lack this kind of helpful marker. For example:

The dragons were being ridden.

In this sentence, no active agent is mentioned; we don’t know who is riding the dragons. So “by zombies” can help you figure out that this sentence is passive. “The dragons were being ridden by zombies” might be an odd image, but it makes sense grammatically (and hey, maybe in your story dragons are being ridden by zombies!)

In this case, the extra to-be verb – “being” on top of “were” – is also a clue.

So why do we generally want to avoid passive voice?

Two reasons are pretty technical:

  1. Passive sentences tend to be wordier than active sentences.
  2. Passive sentences can be more difficult to follow than active sentences.

Let’s return to our stabtastic knitting needles for a moment. I’m going to add an extra prepositional phrase for purposes of confusion, because the basic examples we’ve been using won’t illustrate the second point well.

Someone was stabbed with knitting needles by Edna.

Edna stabbed someone with her knitting needles.

The first sentence – our passive sentence – is one word longer than the second, active sentence. (If I’d chosen a more complicated example, there’d be a greater difference.) It’s also more awkward and difficult to follow: prepositional phrases pile up on top of each other, and we don’t know who’s doing the stabbing until the end of the sentence.

Because the active agent doesn’t show up until the end (typically), passive sentences also tend to be less interesting than active sentences. Even though Edna’s the one doing the stabbing in both of the above sentences, she feels less active in the passive sentence, because she isn’t tied directly to the verb. This also creates a greater sense of narrative distance and might veer into the realm of telling, both of which could prevent the reader from connecting with the character and action.

That said…

There are some times you may actually want to use passive voice! It’s not EVIL SUCH THAT YOU MUST NEVER USE IT. It should be used sparingly and intentionally, which is why we oversimplify and say “DON’T USE IT.” But! It’s a valid part of the English language.

But more on that in Part 3, which WILL BE our final installment, I WILL stop writing blog posts about passive voice for now.

In the meantime, leave your questions in the comments or hit me up on Twitter!

Read the whole series on passive voice!

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