Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Friday, April 18, 2008

Passive Voice

Everyone knows they are supposed to use active voice—not passive—when they write, but a lot of folks have difficulties identifying passive and often confuse it with past progressive or other verb tense forms. I know for a long time, I was guilty of that. I thought I could identify passive voice entirely by searching for the word “was.”

I could not have been more wrong.

Passive voice should not be confused with verb tense.

Verb tense is action + time. What happened and when.

Passive/active voice is the subject in relation to the action. Is the subject the doer or the recipient of the action?

I am by no means Madame Grammarian or an expert in grammar by any stretch of the imagination. It wasn't until NYT Bestselling author, Sabrina Jeffries, beat me over the head with the meaning of passive voice that I really "got it". Now, I'm going to give you the benefit of my beating.

Because it is seriously important for writers to become proficient in the tools of their craft, and grammer is the most important tool. So I’ve done a little studying. What I hope to do here is explain what passive voice is—and what is not—and show lots of examples.


Note, big warning repeated: Do not confuse verb tense with passive or active voice. Passive or active are determined strictly by the doer or recipient of the action.
And, believe it or not, there are actually times when you should use passive voice.

Key to Passive Voice: Identify who or what is doing the action. If the subject of the sentence is performing the action, then it’s active, regardless of the verb tense used.
If the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action, then it is passive.

Active: She hit him.

“She” is the subject of the sentence. She is doing the action, i.e. she’s doing the hitting, actively (and one might say, aggressively). Active.

Passive: He was hit by her.

“He” is the subject of the sentence, but he’s not the one doing the action. He’s the recipient of the action performed “by her”. So he’s passively accepting a sock to the jaw. Passive.

First Rumor to Dispel
The word “was” indicates passive voice.

No, not all the time. If you see “was” in combination with a verb ending in “ing” then it is probably not passive voice. It is probably past progressive showing a continuous action that happened in the past.

For example:
He was walking.

Past progressive, active, not passive. “He” is the subject of the sentence and he was actively, continuously walking, in the past.

If you see “was” in combination with a verb ending in “ed” or “en,” etc, then it is probably passive voice.

For example:
The tray of food was dropped by the waiter. Passive. The tray of food is the recipient of the action. It was dropped by the waiter.

Not Passive Example 1: “Was” + “-ing” verb

He was walking to the store when a bus hit him.

“Was walking” indicates that he was in the act of walking—continuously walking—when he got hit by a bus. This is not passive voice. It is past progressive. You can think of this verb tense as “in the progress of doing something,” with the emphasis on progress. Hence, progressive.

Remember: verb tense is action + time--the tenses tell you what was done and when it was done.

You would not say:

He walked to the store when a bus hit him.

Not only does this sound strange, but it suffers from temporal distortion because “walked” indicates that he had finished walking when the bus hit him. Excuse me? Was he just standing there? Or maybe you mean, he walked to the store after the bus hit him.

That’s what I mean by temporal distortion. You no longer know what the correct timing is in this sequence, because you used the wrong verb tense in a misguided effort to avoid “was.”

Clearly, it is not the verb tense that indicates if a sentence is active or passive, because both of those sentences were active.

Passive Example 2: “Was” + “ed” verb

He was attacked by a bear at the corner of 5th and Main.

“Was attacked” here indicates the bear actually performed the action—not the man. This is passive voice. And it is passive voice told using past tense.

[Most stories are told in some form of third person, past tense, so most of my examples are written that way. However, you can use any verb tense and still have passive voice if your subject is the recipient of the action.]

Examples of Various Verb Tenses + Passive/Active Voice
Just to prove this point, here are examples of all the verb tenses, used in sentences constructed using first passive voice and then active voice. Some of the examples are extremely awkward—sorry about that.

Note again, it is the subject in relation to action that indicates passive or active voice. It is not the verb tense, which is action + time. (Although if you see the word “being” in the sentence, chances are good that it’s a passive construction, unless it’s future progressive.)

PRESENT - NOW Verb Forms

Present Tense

The cart is dragged by her into the woods. Present tense, passive voice
The cart is the recipient of the action.

Now, active voice:
She drags the cart into the woods. Present tense, active voice
She is taking action.

Present Perfect Tense (indefinite time/continues to present). Uses has/having with the verb's past participle, e.g. ending in -ed.

The cart has been dragged through the woods by her since 2PM.

Present tense (continues in the present), passive voice.

A better passive voice example is:
Discrimination has undergone examination for its effect on society since 1960.

Present tense (continues in the present), passive voice.

Now, active voice:
She has dragged the cart through the woods since 2PM.

Present tense (continues in the present), active voice

Present Progressive (continuous action, happening now). Uses am/is/are with verb ending in -ing.

The cart is being dragged by her through the woods.

Present progressive (continuous action, now), passive voice. Note "being".

Now, active voice:
She is dragging the cart through the woods.

Present progressive (continuous action, now), active voice.

Present Perfect Progressive (action began in the past, continues in the present, and may continue into the future). Uses has/have been + verb ending in -ing.

The cart has been being dragged by her through the forest.

Present perfect progressive (continuous action that may continue in the future), passive voice. Wow, that’s awkward. Yuch.

Maybe a different passive sentence would help:
A transfer of funds has been undergoing consideration by the committee for quite some time.

Now, active voice:
She has been dragging the cart through the woods.

Present perfect progressive (continuous action that may continue into the future), active voice.

Another example may make this clearer:
She has been considering quitting her job if her boss doesn’t ease up. Active voice.

FUTURE – in the future

Future Tense
The cart will be dragged by her through the woods. Future tense, passive voice

And active voice:
She will drag the cart through the woods. Future tense, active voice

Future Perfect Tense (Action occurs in the future before some other action). Uses "will have" + past particple of the verb.

The cart will have been dragged into the woods by the time we get there.

Future perfect tense, passive voice

And active voice:
She will have dragged the cart into the woods by the time we get there.

Future perfect tense, active voice

Future Progressive (Ongoing, continuous action in the future). Uses "will be" + verb ending in -ing.

The cart will be being dragged into the woods by her this afternoon while we are out.

Future progressive (continuous action in the future), passive voice.

And active voice:
She will be dragging the cart into the woods this afternoon while we are out.

Future progressive (continuous action), active voice.

Future Perfect Progressive (Ongoing, continuous action that will occur before some future time). Uses "will have been" + verb ending in -ing.

The cart will have been being dragged into the woods by her by 4:00pm.

Future perfect progressive (future continuous action that occurs before some specified time), passive voice.
A better example may be:

By next year, the decision will have been undergoing review for over three years.

Future perfect progressive, passive voice. The decision is being reviewed, so it is the recipient of the review. “We” is implied as the entity taking the action. If this was rephrased in active voice, it would be: By next year, we will have been reviewing this decision for over three years.

And active voice:
She will have been dragging the cart for over an hour by 4:00pm.

Future perfect progressive (future continuous action that occurs before some specified time), active voice.
A better example may be:


By the year 3000, doctors will have been treating cancer with radiation therapy for over 1000 years.

Future perfect progressive, active voice. The doctors are treating cancer, i.e. the doctors are taking the action against cancer.


PAST – happened in the past

Past Tense
The cart was dragged into the woods by her. Past tense, passive voice
She dragged the cart into the woods. Past tense, active voice

Past Perfect Tense (Action took place in past before another past action). Uses "had" + past participle of the verb (e.g. ends in -ed).

The cart had been dragged into the woods by her by the time we got there.

Past perfect tense, passive voice

She had dragged the cart into the woods by the time we got there.

Past perfect tense, active voice

Past Progressive (action happening when another action occured). Uses was + verb ending in -ing.

The cart was being dragged into the woods by her when she saw a bear.

Past progressive (continuous, past action), passive voice.

She was dragging the cart into the woods when she saw a bear.

Past progressive (continuous, past action), active voice.

Past Perfect Progressive (continuous action completed before some other past action). Uses "had been" + verb ending in -ing.

The cart had been being dragged into the woods by her for over an hour before we got home.

Past perfect progressive (continuous action completed before some other past action), passive voice.
Here is another example that’s still awkward, but maybe more understandable…

Before we ended the meeting at 5PM, the recommendation had been undergoing discussion for over three hours.

Past Perfect Progressive, passive voice. The recommendation is the subject, and “we” are discussing it. The action is “discussing”.

And now active:
She had been dragging the cart through the woods or over an hour before we got home.

Past perfect progressive (continuous action), active voice.


Obviously, some of these forms are exceptionally awkward—at least in the examples I selected. There are certainly less awkward examples I could have written. Maybe. Thank goodness we rarely try to write fiction with such strained, awkward language.

When is it okay to use passive?
Now comes the really interesting part—at least to me. There are some times when you have to use passive, or at least want to use passive, in order to preserve emphasis and not to change the subject.

Remember the big key: passive versus active is essentially the subject of the sentence in relation to the action. If you write everything in active voice, you can sometimes inadvertently change the subject to an entity (e.g. a cart) that is less important.

I’m going to give a lot of examples, because this is very, very important and is really the crux of this entire article.

When you write, one of the things you really have to think about is: who or what is the “focus” of attention right now? Depending upon your answer, you may need to use passive voice if you don’t want to shift the focus, even temporarily, to another subject.

In other words, if you don’t want to change the subject.

Focus Example 1

“What happened to Nancy?” he asked.
“She was hit by a bus on her way to work,” the receptionist said before breaking into tears.

“She was hit by a bus” is a passive construction. But, most people would agree, the important focus in this conversation is Nancy.

Now, if you were really, really against passive voice, you could have written this entirely in active voice:
“What happened to Nancy?” he asked.
“A bus hit her on her way to work,” the receptionist said, turning on her computer.

Yes, that does work and is entirely active voice, but it shifts the focus to the bus and away from Nancy. It distances you from Nancy and makes her less important. For some people, if they are not paying close attention, they may actually think this is a non sequitur and repeat their question, because they were expecting to hear an answer that had Nancy as the subject—not a bus.

There is nothing wrong with this, but in real conversation, we often use passive voice to keep the focus on the person we are discussing, instead shifting to a thing, like a bus.

Note: some people (and therefore, characters) will prefer to use active voice in the above conversation because they prefer to keep people at a distance. By changing the subject to “the bus” the speaker may be more comfortable talking about the accident because it makes Nancy’s plight more distant and therefore, more bearable.

This is one way that you can make active/passive voice work for you—and help you define your characters. A hero who is uncomfortable with emotions and likes to keep people at a distance, may prefer to say, “A bus hit Nancy.” It’s direct, impersonal, and active. Those may be your hero’s main traits.

On the other hand, a hero who is emotionally connected to Nancy and focused on her and her tragedy, may say, “Nancy was hit by a bus this morning.” It reveals his focus on Nancy and the writer can use that to show his emotional “reference.”

This “focus effect” is why many newspaper articles use more passive voice. The news articles want to maintain the emotional focus on a particular person, especially if that person is famous.

Focus Example 2

Nancy Sinatra was walking along the beach yesterday when she was attacked by a walrus. Her body was dragged into the ocean and was later found by beachcombers.

That’s a fairly typical example you might find in a newspaper or magazine, where the really important subject is Nancy Sinatra. The reporter does not want to shift focus away from her—or her body. So he slips into passive voice to retain the emotional impact and focus. Nancy (or her body) is always emphasized.

For even more impact, this may be written (still in passive voice) as:
Nancy Sinatra was walking along the beach yesterday when she was attacked by a walrus. Nancy’s body was dragged into the ocean, and she was later found by beachcombers.

Notice here, I not only kept Nancy as the "centerpiece" of the sentence, but I reinforced this by using her name (instead of just “her body”) so that you could not “objectify” her and diminish her significance. I made it “more personal.”

Let’s dissect this further, because I don’t want you to confuse exactly what is passive about that paragraph.


Nancy Sinatra was walking along the beach yesterdayActive voice, past progressive.

When she was attacked by a walrus. – Passive voice, past progressive. The walrus is doing the attacking. Nancy is the victim (or object) of this action.

Nancy’s body was dragged into the ocean, and she was later found by beachcombers. – Passive voice, past progressive. Both parts of this sentence are passive voice.

In the first part, the walrus is still doing the action, and it’s doing it to Nancy’s body. In the second half, the beachcombers are performing the action (finding a body) and Nancy’s body is the object they found.

You could rewrite this in active voice as follows, but notice the subtle difference in emotional focus and emphasis.
Nancy Sinatra was walking along the beach when a walrus attacked her. The walrus dragged her body into the ocean and beachcombers later found the mauled remains.

When you rewrite this in active voice, the second part of the first sentence shifts the focus away from Nancy to the walrus. You de-emphasize Nancy and take a step away from her, creating distance. You are now thinking about the walrus, and it’s the walrus you are visualizing and not Nancy’s poor, lifeless corpse being dragged around.

In the final clause, you shift focus yet again to the beachcombers. This makes a further shift away from Nancy, until she becomes quite distant and unimportant. You end up deemphasizing Nancy and focusing instead on the walrus and beachcombers. Her body becomes just another piece of detritus found on the beach.

So, you don’t want to switch to active voice if you will lose your focus and emotional impact. You may have to use passive to avoid creating distance between your subject and the reader.

That said, there are times, particularly in comedic writing, when you quite deliberately want to switch focus. Active voice can be just the ticket.

Focus Example 3

Nancy Sinatra was walking along the beach when a walrus attacked her. The walrus dragged her into the ocean and ate her, resulting in a massive case of indigestion. Local wildlife rehabbers managed to capture the walrus in time to save its life. The leader of the team, Ted Wilson, blamed Nancy for her irresponsible behavior in getting eaten by an endangered species and cautioned others to avoid putting their own, ridiculous health routines above the welfare of our treasured national wildlife.

In the first sentence, you end by shifting attention to the walrus.
Then you shift from the walrus to the rehabbers.
You end with the focus entirely on the rehabbers and Ted’s advice.

That’s all active voice. And we shifted quite neatly away from Nancy to the plight of the poor walrus that ate her, and finally, to the views of a bunch of rehabbers, led by Ted Wilson.

If you were writing about Nancy’s tragic death, you’ve failed.
If you were trying to make a statement about the environment and our responsibility toward endangered species, then you succeeded. (Or, you just created a bit of sarcastic humor—depending upon your view of Ted’s advice.)

If you want to shift focus to achieve some effect, then by all means do so. Just be aware you are doing it.

Oh, and don’t let me leave you with the impression that I’m saying passive is somehow better—it’s not. If at all possible, you should use active voice. Just make sure you don’t arbitrarily and blindly “follow the rule to use active voice at all times” at the expense of your story.

And don’t assume that any sentence containing the word “was” is passive.

14 comments:

Grumpy Old Woman said...

I feel obliged to add the following disclaimer. While I am sure about passive versus active, I was very, very unsure of myself when trying to construct passive voice sentences in some of the verb tenses like future perfect progressive, etc.

I am not a grammar expert.

I also loosely used the term "subject" when more precise individuals might have distinguished between the subject of the sentence and the OBJECT.

Forgive me.
Consider this a disclaimer.

Skhye Moncrief said...

Bravo for your effort. I can't read it all because my toddler just yelled. She's awake! I wanted to leave kudos. ;) I'll have to return and read more later... Skhye

Morgan St. John said...

:) That was a ton of work...and I'm going to bookmark it for referencing. It did take me a litte time to get a feel for this technique. I don't have a mathmatical mind. So, lining up rules is harder for me to understand. I DO, in my own work, read aloud. As crazy as this sounds, it really helps me HEAR when something is wrong. I guess, lessons and experience go hand-in-hand. It does get easier to write well and recognize mistakes. [which I make all the time :D]

*and I'll add more monkey wrenches...just for the fun of it. EX. ONE: She hit him. Also passive if you Italisize and give it to the Hero's POV as a statement of disbelief. LOL how DOES that work, anyway? I might never know!

Thanks for helping me. I love it.

Anonymous said...

An awesome labor, Amy!

Below are some addendums added by me.:-)

Another use for passive voice is to hide the identity of the one(s) doing the action.

Cheryl's name was dropped from the invitation list.

Carl was promoted, but John wasn't.

The motion was carried.

A good time was had by all.

Bureaucrat-ese:

Classes will be rescheduled for Tuesday.

Violators will be prosecuted.

When the action is attributable to accident or non-sentient entity:

Roofs were blown off all over the city.

Her dress was ruined.

The car was totaled in the wreck.

A fun discussion. Thanks.
Mary Margret

Lynn Reynolds said...

Great blog, Amy. I learned a while back that not every "Was" sentence is passive voice. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to convince critique partners and even some editors of that fact! Your post does a great job of clarifying the differences. You should consider teaching a workshop on the subject.

Grumpy Old Woman said...

Yes - I certainly wouldn't mind participating in a workshop about passive voice. There are just so many misunderstandings about it.

Now if we could just get all the contest judges to understand that "was" is okay and not a sign of anything except perhaps a progressive verb tense...
Thanks for the comments!

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Jacks

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Emily said...

Great article. I just had a frustrating experience in which I was critiquing someone's short story, and a fellow critiquer kept misidentifying "passive voice" and harping on the author for it. Argh! So frustrating...

I sent the author this link as this was the best article I could find, and perfectly tailored towards fiction.

Amy said...

Emily:
I know exactly what you mean. I've been kicked in the head several times by that horse and when I've tried to explain what passive voice really is, well, let's just say I've been kicked out of writers groups because of it. Some folks would rather believe the myth than the reality.
Good luck and may 2011 be a joyous and prosperous year for you!

grannygrammarguru said...

My writers' critique asked me to write an article on active vs. passive voice, but I believe your post is much better than anything I could write. May I have your permission to include your article in our newsletter? I will, of course, give you full credit via a citation, including a link to your site. Thanks.

Amy said...

Hi!
Yes--absolutely. I'm perfectly comfortable with folks using this in newsletters with credits. Thanks.
If you'd like to include my website, it's: http://www.amycorwin.com

Thanks again, it's nice of you to do this!

T C Mckee said...

Hi Amy

Awesome post. Would you mind if I reposted this on my blog?

Amy said...

Sure - you can repost this!
Appreciate it.
Amy