Identifying the Passive Voice

I’ve written before about When Passive Voice is Permissible. Strunk and White admit that “Use the active voice … does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

active passive voice
Illustration by kikkerdirk • Fotolia


But one of the biggest problems writers face in critique groups is the problem of partners who flag passages as “passive” when they’re really not. Often verbs of being (be, is, was) are flagged as “incorrect” or “passive.” They are not. They are not particularly strong verbs, but they are not passive in and of themselves.

One of my clients was even told by a critique partner never to use the word was, because it’s passive. That kind of advice is harmful. This client, a very new writer who didn’t know any better, removed every instance of was, often producing sentences that were completely ungrammatical.

The sentence It was raining is not passive. It is weak, and I would recommend a change to something like Rain poured down. But that’s different from flagging a sentence for being passive.

Passive voice, as Geoffrey Pullum pointed out years ago, is not the best term for this grammatical construction. Pullum prefers to identify the sentence or clause as passive. The verbs themselves are not passive or active. Not even the verb was. Pullum has written an article to help us understand why there is so much confusion about passive verb clauses: “The passive in English”

In his article “‘Passive Voice’ — 1397–2009 — R.I.P.”, Pullum cites the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the passive voice: “In passive constructions, the word which would logically be the object under a corresponding active construction functions as the grammatical subject, while the logical subject either is absent or is represented in a prepositional phrase (e.g. the food was eaten or the food was eaten by them rather than they ate the food).”

We really have to get over this superstitious horror about passives. It’s gone beyond a joke.—Geoffrey Pullum

In “The passive in English,” Pullum uses this example: City Hall damaged by storms. This is a tenseless construction common in news headlines. Damaged in this case is a participle, and participles do not carry tense. To give it tense, we must add a verb of being. City Hall is damaged by storms is present tense; City Hall was damaged by storms is past tense. All are passive.

In the active construction and present tense, the subject of the sentence would be placed first: Storms damage City Hall. Note that shifting the sentence to the active voice also changes the verb to its plain form, eliminating the need for an auxiliary verb. The verb changes to the plural to match storms. The singular form would be Storm damages City Hall. In past tense, it would be Storms damaged City Hall.

In other words, it’s not the use of was that makes the sentence City Hall was damaged by storms passive; it’s the placement of the object (City Hall) in the position that would otherwise be held by the subject. This kind of passive construction is justified by two of Garner’s points: It puts the focus on the thing being acted upon (City Hall) and puts the punch word (storms) at the end.

For a fun analysis of the use of passive clauses in great writing, see Mark Liberman’s breakdown of selections from Winston Churchill’s The River War.

Passive voice is just another tool in the writer’s toolbox. On the one hand, you don’t want to use a hammer when you need a screwdriver. But on the other hand, sometimes you just need a hammer. Knowing which tool to use when is a matter of knowing your craft.

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  1. Thanks for the lesson. Have a good day Kristen.

  2. The key point I got was that the object is placed first, thereby putting the focus on the thing being acted on. When the object is the important point, passive voice may be the right tool for the writer. Another point is that the prepositional phrase identifying the actor is at the end. The actor is the punchline. Good blog.

  3. Very informational blog! Thank you.

  4. Several agents rejected my debut novel, Echoes From Punjab, for my passive voice. Yet I could hardly find such sentences to correct.
    This blog is an eye-opener. Thanks for posting it.

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