Monday, August 06, 2007

Passive Voice

Since I still have company and haven't had a creative thought since they arrived I'm going to paste the information I gathered for an online class I presented to the Hearts Through History online RWA Chapter. The following information was gathered from various sites on Passive Voice I googled.

Passive Voice- How many times has someone marked that on your manuscript or contest entry? Do you really know what passive voice is?

A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, the one performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Passive constructions are easy to spot; look for a form of "to be" (is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. (The past participle is a form of the verb often, but not always, ending in "-ed." Some exceptions to the "-ed" rule are words like "paid" and "driven.")

It is also passive when you write a sentence:

She was trying.

She tried.

He found the game was stripping him of his money.

The game stripped him of his money.

For example:

The metropolis has been scorched by the dragon's fiery breath.

When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her remarriage.

**NOTE: the passive voice is marked by a form of "to be" + the past participle--not a form of "have" alone + the past participle, as some students believe. So don't let the combination of "have" and "to be" fool you. In the next section, we discuss why you often want to avoid using the passive voice, but let's briefly look at how to change passive constructions into active ones. You can usually just switch the order, making the actor and subject one--putting the doer up front:

The dragon scorched the metropolis with his fiery breath.

After suitors invaded Penelope's house, she had to think of ways to fend them off.

To repeat, the key to identifying the passive voice is to look for both a form of "to be" and a past participle, which usually, but not always, ends in "-ed."

The primary reason why passive voice is frowned is because the reader often has to guess what you mean. Sometimes, the confusion is minor.

Some people believe passive voice signals sloppy, lazy thinking--that those who use it have not thought through a process they are discussing. Imprecision follows. Consider these sentences:

The group was chaotic.
African Americans were discriminated against.
Women were not treated as equals.

Such sentences lack the precision and connection to context gives the reader clarity and draws them deeper into your story. Better sentences would be:

The college students pushed and shouted as they made their way down the boulevard.

African Americans had a hard time finding decent housing, jobs, and schooling in the past.

Until recent years, women did not live with the same laws and salaries as men.

Passive voice can cause prose to be flat and uninteresting.

Some sites for help with passive voice-

Now I’m not saying to never use passive. There are times when it is necessary or conveys the message you want to get across. The main thing is to KNOW what passive voice is and when to use it. You’ll see passive voice used in nonfiction works and literary works, but if you are writing romance and want to lure your reader in, it's best to use it as little as possible to keep your reader in the moment.

Are you a writer who uses passive voice and do you know why you use it? Or are you someone who uses it and didn't have a clear idea of what it was ? If you are one who uses passive voice, give us a sample and explain why it works.


Alice Sharpe said...

I must be the dumbest person in the world because I still, STILL, don't understand passive voice. I read what you said and tried to absorb it, then I went back to my WIP and every other sentence seems to have a had had or a was or some other terrible thing and then I looked for "ed" endings but that's not an all the time rule....

The last time I got on one of these kicks, I took out every ly ending word in a book. Really! (Even the really (s) had to go!)


Elisabeth Naughton said...

No you're not, Alice. My head hurts. I know it in my own writing, but I'm horrible at explaining it to others. (There's a reason I was a science teacher and not an English teacher.)

Karen Duvall said...

I think most writers use passive voice intuitively. We know what sounds right within the context of the story. Sometimes it just works better to use "he was trying" than "he tried" because the former implies the trying is in progress rather than it already happened, you know? So passive voice in narrative fiction is slightly different than what would be used in, say, the newspaper.

I'm with Alice and Eli. I don't fret over it. (Oh, my! I just ended a sentence with a preposition!) Getting too caught up in grammatical rights and wrongs can make a person's writing sound wooden and flat. I'd rather read a paragraph of lively passive (oxymoron, anyone? snort) voice than a boring paragraph of lifeless active voice.

Alice Sharpe said...

Paty -- It looks like we're all ganging up on you, but that's not the case. I think we're just trying to figure out how to live with the "rules." Karen and Eli make good points.

I don't mind flaunting a rule I don't agree with, but having its definition float right between my ears and exit, stage left, is another matter!

I like topics that get people thinking. Now my head hurts, too.

wavybrains said...

The easiest way that I explain passive voice to my students: Is your subject DOING the action or is your subject RECEIVING the action? If your subject is DOING the action, don't worry so much about verb tense ing/ed/be etc. If your subject is neither doing or receiving but is just BEING, then try to make your subject DO something where you can.

I have a personal love affair with the verb "was." I know this is a weakness of mine, so I try to eliminate "was" where I can as part of revisions, but I don't stress to much about it. I just make sure the bulk of my sentences have ACTION.

Paty Jager said...

I think the big thing is knowing you're using passive voice. There are so many people who don't even know what it is.

It's funny I don't know how else to explain it to help any of you, but I know I now instinctively write out the passive as I write and only rarely do I find a passive sentence when I edit my own stuff. I don't think it makes my writing sound wooden and I do use passive sentences when they are warranted. Like I said some times you need them, but sometimes you can have a better sentence and scene if you take out the passive.

Sorry, I gave you a headache Alice and Eli! I hadn't planned on that! Wavy, that's a good explanation. And I tend to like a little passive in a story as long as is it isn't throughout the story.

Alice Sharpe said...

I like your explanation, Wavy.

Barbara said...

Thanks for the links to the websites explaining passive voice, Paty. I think the first and third links do the best job of explaining it because they compare and contrast active and passive constructs of the same sentences in numerous examples. They also explain when it is appropriate to use passive voice (e.g., in scientific writing) and when the use of passive voice tends to shirk responsibility (e.g., in business and politics). I'm guessing that some characters in novels might be more likely to use passive voice than others, but the author (and probably the hero and heroine) would be less likely to use passive voice since they are providing the action in the story. The third site concludes its entry by advising the writer to not depend on computer grammar checkers to decide when to use passive voice as they will be likely to mark all passive constructions. They advise reading the sentences aloud in active and passive voice to someone else to decide which sounds better. That site also gives instructions and examples on how to change sentences from active to passive and from passive to active voices. Definitely something to think about in editing, but not while writing the first draft unless things are going badly and you don't know why it sounds so flat and uninteresting.