The Dreaded Passive Voice
Okay, I’ll admit it. When it comes to using passive voice in writing, I’m a low-life snob. I’m better than that. I know enough not to let the dreaded passive voice into my sentences. When I critique someone else’s work, you can bet I’ve commented on the number of times they used “was”.
Imagine my chagrin/humiliation/embarrassment as I edited one of my own manuscripts and found not just a few instances of the dreaded passive voice, but many, many sentences. Oh, the indignity. Oh, the horror.
What is Passive Voice?
For all the new writers out there (and, apparently, me), a definition of passive voice:
Passive voice makes the object of an action into the subject:
Drusilla Armour-Bacon had been freed by that Winter man.
The object of the sentence, Drusilla Armour-Bacon, is not the doer of the action. The verb is “freed”. The subject, “that Winter man” is the one who freed her. He is the subject. She is the object. Simple sentence structure, which I forgot for about 73,000 words.
A better sentence:
That Winter man freed Drusilla Armour-Bacon.
Here’s another example:
The ruler was judged not only on what he did, but the company he kept.
The ruler is not judging. Someone else is. Put those who judge at the beginning of the sentence to make it more active:
People judged the ruler not only on what he did but the company he kept.
X did Y
X was done by Y
Most times, the culprit is a form of the be verb: was, am, are, is, been. My personal hiccup is been.
Passive: The man had been decked out in gold and red braid.
Active: The man had decked himself out in gold and red braid.
Passive: It had been dark with no welcoming lights to greet them.
Active: No welcoming lights greeted them.
Changing from passive to active makes the sentence clearer, shorter, more impactful, and easier to understand.
The “by zombies” or “by dinosaurs” rule
If you have difficulty (as I apparently do) with passive verbs, try the “by zombies” or “by dinosaurs” trick.
If you can insert “by zombies” or “by dinosaurs” after the verb and it makes sense, the sentence is passive.
The man had been decked out (by zombies) in gold and red braid.
The ruler was judged (by dinosaurs) not only on what he did, but the company he kept.
Another handy tool is to flip the sentence around.
The guards were incinerated by the dragon.
The dragon incinerated the guards.
Here’s a good active-into-passive voice exercise brought to you by www.englishgrammar.org.
Now that I (finally) know the insidious way passive verbs can infiltrate my sentences, I’m off to Revisionland.
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