Darrell J. Pursiful

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Written by Zombies: A Primer on the Passive Voice

Permit me a small rant, which I will preface by saying that I don’t know a lot about writing, but I am confident that I know some things about grammar.

People who do know about writing warn writers against overuse of the passive voice. I agree. Though the passive voice has its place, it is often overused, especially in formal, academic writing.

My rant is this: A lot of people who warn against overuse of the passive voice have a devil of a time recognizing it when they see it. Instead, they’re seeing something else, something deceptively similar in form, and they’re calling it “passive voice” when it is not.

We’re going to have to unpack some terms here, and I apologize beforehand that it might be rough going. I’ll try to stick to the basics.

The first term: VOICE. I’m not talking about “authorial voice” or even finding a character’s “voice.” In grammatical terms, voice has to do with how the subject of a verb is related to the verb itself. In English, there are basically two choices:

Active Voice is when the subject is performing the action of the verb: “The dog bit me.”
Passive Voice is when the subject is receiving the action of the verb: “I was bitten by the dog.”

That’s it. That’s what the passive voice is, no more and no less. You don’t even need the “by the dog” part. A passive voice construction doesn’t have to tell you who is doing something, only who or what it is being done to: “I was robbed!” “Have you ever been kissed?” “Our country is built on laws.”

Even so, an easy test for whether or not you’re dealing with a passive voice construction is whether you can add “by zombies” and the sentence makes sense. “I was robbed by zombies!” “Have you ever been kissed by zombies?” “Our country is built on laws…erm, by zombies.”

So let’s take one more example: “Fred was walking down the street.” Is that passive voice? Let’s find out: “Fred was walking down the street by zombies.” Nope. Because we already know who is performing the action of the verb. It’s Fred. Fred is the one walking. And yet, there are plenty of good, smart, educated people—many of whom write for a living—who’ll see that sentence and say, “You shouldn’t use the passive voice. Change it to ‘Fred walked.'”

And that leads us to the next term.

Second term: ASPECT. Aspect has to do not with the relationship of subjects to verbs but with how the speaker or writer wants you to imagine the action of the verb taking place. Once again, in English, we basically have two options:

Simple Aspect simply announces that the action takes place or has taken place: “The dog bit me.”
Continuous Aspect asks us to imagine the action as taking place repeatedly or over a course of time: “The dog was biting me.”

(There is also the emphatic mood—”The dog did bite me”—but let’s put that to one side for now.)

So, “Fred was walking down the street.” Passive voice? Nope. Not even close. Continuous aspect? There you go! Mind you, I’m not arguing that that sentence is stellar prose. Continuous aspect can also be overused, and often is. But when you’re critiquing someone’s writing, it’s actually kind of helpful to critique the right thing.

What trips a lot of people up is that these two verb forms are constructed from some of the same building blocks. Both use a form of the verb “to be” (is, was, are, etc.) plus a participle. But what kind of participle makes all the difference:

• “To be” + a past participle (usually ends in -ed) = passive voice
• “To be” + a present participle (ends in -ing) = continuous aspect.

Bottom line: Neither passive voice nor continuous aspect are grammatical errors, and there are times when both are actually preferable to active voice or simple aspect, respectively. But they should never be the default. When in doubt, shy away from using these forms.

I’ll leave you with this nice tutorial on How to Avoid Using the Passive Voice. Happy writing!



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