Notes from writing class - Passive Voice

Disclaimer: This is a recurring and random series of posts. I'm currently enrolled in a basic writing/editing class and felt that my notes might be helpful to others. Please note, I am not an editor. I'm just an author trying to learn more about the craft to improve my own work, while sharing the things I learn along the way.   Enjoy.

This is one of the most convoluted topics out there. I’m not even sure If I fully understand it myself, but here’s the basics.

Passive voice does not mean simply using the "to be” verbs; however, in many cases it is the use of the "to be" verb that helps the sentence become passive.

What are the “to be” verbs? Is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being. They are state of being verbs, which means that they attempt to claim a degree of permanence.

Quick tip: Look for a form of "to be" followed by a past participle. (Words often ending in –ed)

In a passive sentence, the object of the action will be in the subject position at the front of the sentence.
What is the subject of your sentence? Is it taking direct action? That is question in passive construction.

George is loved by Michelle.

George is the subject here but he isn’t doing the action of loving, Michelle is.

You could just say, Michelle loves George.

But not all forms of “to be” are passive.

I am holding the camera.

“Am” is a form of “to be.” But this sentence is not passive. The camera is the subject and it is being held. It is taking direct action. I “am” the one holding it.

If I was to say, “the camera is being held by me”, the sentence becomes passive. The subject “the camera” is no longer taking the direct action.

Passive writing isn’t something you can avoid all of the time but it’s something you should use in moderation. In many cases passive sentences can be reworded with strong action verbs and that can add the punch you need.


TLH said…
Passive voice is so irritating to me. When I see it want to get out my little red pen. I think most people don't pay attention to it, though, and I'll admit it can be used artistically every now and then. But in general, avoid it like the plague.

Much like passive characters. Boring! ;D

Botanist said…
Good explanation, Katie. Critiquers often pick up on passives, which is good - I've had some blatant examples pointed out to me which slipped my net.

But I get slightly irritated when well-meaning folk scream "passive" while pointing a finger at sentences like "I am holding the camera." Has that ever happened to you?
Sandra Cormier said…
Perhaps a word to watch out for is "by."
Rex Jameson said…
I need to reread my current manuscript and make sure that I am removing any semblance of passive voice. I don't think it's something that I normally do, but I can see this being one of those devices that the original author is blind to during a revision.

Thanks for sharing!
Katie Salidas said…
I struggle with passive voice all the time and it's something my ctitters try to point out but like Botanist said, sometimes "to be" is labeled passive when it isn't.

I am holding the camera!!