This is a subject previously touched upon, but still causes problems for writers.
Passive voice is one of those things that give all writers a headache from time to time, because sometimes it’s needed and sometimes it isn’t, but knowing when to correctly use passive voice causes the confusion.
Firstly, the use of passive voice isn’t always grammatically incorrect. This creates uncertainty for writers, who believe it’s a writing no-no, but there are times when passive voice is actually required, and preferred.
But what exactly is passive voice?
Passive voice is produced by using an auxiliary verb (e.g. to be), which is used with a past participle. If you are not sure of the verb forms of to be, they are - is, are, am, was, were, have been, has been, had been, will be, will have been and being.
A past participle is a form of the verb that usually, though not exclusively, ends in ‘-ed’. Verbs are either active or passive.
In passive voice, the target of the action takes the subject position, for example, ‘the plant was watered by John’, or ‘the door was closed by Amy’. In other words, both John and Amy are the recipients of the action, rather than the other way around, where the subjects (John and Amy) are doing the action.
In the active voice, these sentences would look like this:
John watered the plant.
Amy closed the door.
In an active sentence, the subject performs the action. John is the subject of the sentence because he is doing the action, therefore the sentence is active.
Amy is also the subject of the sentence because she performs the action of closing the door. Again, the sentence is active.
You need to identify who or what is doing the action; therefore, if the subject is performing the action then the sentence is active. If, however, the subject of the sentence is receiving the action, then you have constructed a passive sentence.
The word to look out for that contrives passive sentences is ‘was’. Avoid too much use of ‘was’ in your narrative.
Of course, when we’re in the flow of writing, we don’t always spot passive sentences, so during the editing stages we can go back and correct them because we know what to look for.
As already mentioned above, passive voice isn’t entirely bad. There will be instances where your spellchecker will highlight a passive sentence (rather over zealously) and fill your screen with green little underlines. For instance, in the second paragraph of this article the sentence ‘sometimes it’s needed’ is passive. In the second paragraph, ‘we’ve been taught’ is also passive, however it’s preferable to leave the sentences passive otherwise the flow and fluidity of the whole thing will become awkward if changed, so in this instance passive is preferred.
Passive sentences are very common in dialogue, and are typical representations of everyday speech, so there is little need to change them, for instance:
‘She has been told several times,’ he said.
‘Has been’ is the passive part of the sentence, but it’s in keeping with what we’d say in real life, so there is no need to change it, otherwise the dialogue will become stilted if we were to change it to ‘Told several times, she was.’
So while some passive sentences need eliminating, some are required. Learn about auxiliary verbs and past participles, become familiar with them to help you spot passive sentences. Don’t always rely on your spellchecker.
On the whole, limit passive voice, otherwise your narrative might become awkward. Keep the writing tight and concise and remember to keep sentences active rather than passive wherever possible.
Next week: The importance of feedback