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To be or not

Yesterday I added a couple pages to my WIP and every single time I used a form of the verb to be I could hear that contest judge from long ago who scribbled “PASSIVE VOICE” every place I used a form to the verb to be.  A few years after that, I wrote an article, and I’d like to “re-print” it here to help you and also to remind myself “was” isn’t a cuss word.

PASSIVE VOICE FOR DUMMIES by Marilyn Puett

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I entered an online writing contest.  I fretted over my entry and finally got the courage to paste it in that little window and click “submit.”  I thought I’d sent in pretty clean copy along with a scene that had a good hook.  I had no illusions about winning.  My main goal was the feedback.

Imagine my surprise when I received the critique and it had “Passive Voice!” inserted everywhere.

It’s been a loooooooong time since I sat in a grammar class so I had to go to an online grammar site and jog my memory about passive voice.  I vaguely remembered something about subjects and action but it was pretty fuzzy.

According to the Capital Community College Online Guide to Grammar and Writing (http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/index.htm) passive voice is when the subject of a sentence is “neither a do-er or a be-er.”  The focus is more on the action than on who performed it.

Common Myths

1.  Passive voice is grammatically incorrect. 2.  The verb “to be” is passive. 3.  First person writing can’t contain passive voice. 4.  Grammar check will catch passive voice usage.

Let’s debunk those myths.

Passive voice is NOT grammatically incorrect.  It’s a style issue.  Because it takes the focus off the person or thing doing the action in a sentence, it’s viewed as weak writing.  “The report was presented by John” is an example of passive voice.  The report doesn’t do anything, but John does.

Passive voice is also often used deliberately to divert attention.  In the sentence “The video games were designed to appeal to children,” the focus is on the games, rather than the evil genius who designed them and got your children hooked on the X-Box.

The verb “to be” in and of itself is not passive.  It’s how the verb is used that makes it passive.  “The girl is reading the book” is not passive because the subject (girl) is the do-er; she’s reading the book.

Stories written in first person can contain passive voice just as easily as those written in third person.  “I was called by my attorney” is passive and first person POV.

I ran grammar check on this article and because I have it set to standard writing style as opposed to formal style it didn’t pick up the examples of passive voice.

Why not use passive voice?

Sentences written in passive voice are less direct and sometimes unclear.  In that sentence about video games, it’s unclear what the subject even is.  I just guessed that it was evil genius toy makers bent on separating you from your money.

“The sale is being negotiated by Jim.”  This is wordy and awkward.  “Jim is negotiating the sale” is much clearer.  “Mistakes were made” leaves one to wonder just who was making the mistakes.  “The CEO made mistakes” leaves no doubt.

Why “to be” gets flagged as passive voice

At this point we move from fact to theory so please don’t quote this to a contest judge or your critique partner, even though I believe it’s a pretty darned good theory.

As writers we are encouraged to avoid using adverbs and instead to use strong verbs.  “The sheriff was walking quickly across the room” is considered weak writing (and will often be incorrectly flagged as passive voice).  “The sheriff stalked across the room” might be a better suggestion because the verb paints a more vivid picture of the sheriff’s action.  The verb is stronger or more active.

So if “stalked” is active, then “was walking quickly” must be the opposite, right?  And what’s the opposite of active?  Passive, right?

Wrong!

What’s the subject?  The sheriff.

What’s the verb?  Was walking.

Who performs the action?  The subject.

Passive voice?  No.

Passive or weak writing?  Probably.  Sometimes walk is the best verb to use.  Overuse of “strong verbs” can be a weakness too and make your writing appear amateurish.  I’ve read contest entries where it’s obvious the author made liberal use of a thesaurus to use anything but a common verb.

Here’s another example:  “A pen holder was given to me.”  The pen holder doesn’t do anything and there’s no obvious subject to the sentence.  “The Playfriends gave me a beautiful pen holder for my desk to celebrate my fifteenth sale.”  Okay, that’s a self-serving example but it’s more descriptive, isn’t it?  :)

Much of what gets tagged as passive voice is really weak writing.  It’s telling rather than showing, and it fails to create a vivid picture in the reader’s mind.

This doesn’t mean you should go on a search-and-destroy mission and eliminate every “was” in your manuscript.  Sometimes it’s the only word that’s right for the sentence.  “The tire was flat.”  How else do you say it without getting wordy or ridiculous?  “The tire deflated” just doesn’t mean the same thing.

“They had spent the night in Montgomery and were going on to Panama City the next morning.  It was raining.  It was Sunday, and they were in a rural area.  There wasn’t much traffic.  A dog ran out into the highway, and they hit it, and Matt lost control of the car.  The car left the road and rolled at least twice, then came to a stop, on its right side, in a stand of trees.  Evie was pinned on the bottom.  Matt was hanging in his seat belt above her.  She couldn’t get out, couldn’t get to him, and he b-bled to death in front of her, his blood dripping down on her.  He was conscious,” she said.  Furiously Becky dashed the tears from her cheeks.  “No one saw the car for a long time, what with the rain and the trees blocking the view.  He knew he was dying.  He told her he loved her.  He told her goodbye.  He’d been dead for over an hour before anyone saw the car and came to help.”

Notice how many times the author used “was?”  Did you notice the -ly adverb?  I didn’t notice the first time I read it and I’ve remembered this passage from Linda Howard’s Loving Evangeline since I first read five years ago (actually it’s been ten years ago but I wrote this five years ago).  The scene painted such a vivid picture in my mind — the wrecked car on its side, a man held in place by a seat belt, blood dripping onto the woman below him, his poignant goodbye, her anguish at watching her new husband die before her eyes.

Quick summary

Passive voice isn’t wrong, but it’s not always the best writing style.  Don’t depend on grammar check to catch it.  Keep using forms of the verb “to be” but do try to use strong, active verbs when appropriate.  And remember the simple rule:  in passive voice, the subject isn’t a do-er or be-er.  It is acted upon by someone or something else.  Oops!  That’s passive voice.  Someone or something else acts upon it.

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