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Passive Voice Defined

Guest Author - Sally Apokedak

Passive voice is to be avoided in writing. Why? Because it's boring.

Hmmm. So maybe I should have said, "Writers should avoid using the passive voice." Is that more interesting than the first line I went with?

There are "passive voice" cops who will complain about every instance of passive voice in a manuscript. And there are editors who will skim the first few pages of a manuscript and throw it aside if they see the passive voice because they believe the writer who uses the passive voice must be a novice.

So learning what the passive voice is and learning when to avoid it is pretty important.

Passive Voice ~ What it is.

A passive sentence is one in which the thing being acted upon is the subject of the sentence.

The ball was kicked.

That sentence is passive because the subject of the sentence—the ball—is passively sitting there minding its own business when it is suddenly kicked.

To make the sentence active you would make an actor the subject of the sentence.

John kicked the ball.

Now the sentence is active because an actor is acting.

Passive Voice ~ What it's not.

Some people think that any sentence with the word "was" in it is passive. While searching out "was" and doing away with it when possible is a great exercise, there is nothing wrong with using "was" in your manuscripts. In fact, if you are writing in past tense, you have to use it. A lot.

"The ball was kicked," is passive. But, "The ball was flat," is not passive. It's simply past tense.

Yesterday the ball was flat, today the ball is flat, and tomorrow the ball will be flat.

It's a simple statement of fact, like saying "John was smart."

Yes, you could say "John punctured the ball," or "On the day God handed out brains, he made sure to give John a double portion," and make the sentences active. But there is nothing wrong with simply saying the ball was flat and John was smart. Especially when you don't know who is acting. What if no one acted? What if the ball has never been inflated? Then no one acted to flatten it. It simply was flat.

Some people look for the was/ing combination and edit them. They replace, "The man was singing," with, "The man sang."

The first sentence, they say, is passive, while the second is active. That's not really true. Both sentences are active and past tense and both say almost the same thing. Almost, but not quite.

"The man sang," is tighter than, "The man was singing." It's snappier, sharper. But it also can be interpreted to mean the man sang only one song or even one note, whereas to say the man was singing makes it clear the man was continually singing.

Peter walked into the café. On a small stage in front, a man sang. At the bar two women sat. Behind the counter a waitress filled water glasses.

Peter walked into the café. On a small stage in front a man was singing. At the bar two women were sitting. Behind the counter a waitress was filling water glasses.


Both of those paragraphs are active. Peter is acting. Then a man is acting. Two women are acting. And finally a waitress is acting. In the first paragraph you get a snapshot of a moment in time—the moment when Peter walked into the café. In the second paragraph you get a feeling of interrupted and ongoing action. Peter walked into the bar and these things had been going on before he came in and they were continuing to go on now that he was in the café.

The first version also gives a little more speed to the scene, while the second slows it down a tad. The first feels a little cleaner, the second a little more cluttered. The first gives the feel that Peter is a little more efficient as a POV character, the second that he is a little slower in how he takes in his surroundings.

So look at your sentences with "was" and think about why you want to use them. But don't think that all sentences with "was" are passive. That's simply not the case.

Next week? How To Use Passive Voice Effectively. Yes, there is a time to use it, despite what you've read about eradicating it from all manuscripts everywhere.
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Content copyright © 2013 by Sally Apokedak. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Sally Apokedak. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Annamaria Farbizio for details.

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