Hands up if you’ve ever had a critique partner highlight a sentence of yours with the note, “this is passive.” Yes, my hand is in the air.
Most critique partners aren’t English majors (I’m not, either) so may confuse passive voice with passive construction. Here’s a basic rundown.
The food was eaten.
Who ate the food? I’ve seen a meme going around Facebook that says, “if you can add by zombies to a sentence, it’s passive voice.” It works in this case. See?
The food was eaten by zombies.
Note: even though the who is added, this is still passive voice.
Zombies ate the food.
Now we have a subject and an active verb, though ate isn’t the most active way this could be written. How about:
Zombies devoured the food.
Is passive voice always wrong? No. There are definitely reasons to use it. Here are a few examples:
• The actor is unknown
• It doesn’t matter who the actor is
• You don’t want to draw attention to the actor (the zombies—aack!)
• You want to draw attention to the subject (food, in this case—or lack of it)
Still, if grammar check or your critique partner mark passive voice, think about whether the sentence would be better told in active voice or not. Active voice grips the reader in a way that passive doesn’t.
Sometimes passive voice is marked (by zombies or critique partners) when what is really meant is passive construction.
Passive construction is usually lazy writing and distances the reader. It can often be recognized by use of the verb “to be” in its various forms:
• will be
• would be
• is being
• was being
• will be being
• would be being
• has been
• had been
• will have been
• would have been
• has been being
• had been being
• will have been being
• would have been being
Yes, these words are key in passive voice, but not every use of these words is passive voice.
- Passive voice demonstrated…by zombies click to tweet
- Is passive voice different from passive construction? Let the zombies tell you how! click to tweet
Zombies are undead.
The above sentence is not in passive voice. You cannot add “by zombies” to the end of the sentence and have it make any sense, and not just because zombies are already the subject.
It’s passive construction because it shows no action. It just sits there and does nothing (except for being undead). It’s not a bad sentence; it’s simply not a good sentence. Too many like this strung together will create an effect you don’t want. The reader will yawn, put the book down, and go do something else.
Want to rivet your reader? Use action verbs that mean precisely what you mean them to say. Use devoured instead of ate—if it fits.
Search your manuscript (using the find feature) for was, were, etc. Look at each one. Can you strengthen the sentence by making the construction more active?
Active voice and active construction together will help create invested readers. And that’s what all writers want.
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net