One of the most common pieces of critism I see more advanced writers offering newer writers is ‘This writing is passive’, or equivalents thereof. And one of the commonest phrasings of said critism is: This is passive voice.
STOP. RIGHT. THERE.
This is something I see often, coming from newbies and more experienced writers – and 9 times out of 10, it’s WRONG.
Because ‘passive voice’ is a grammatical construction, with an actual, concrete definition. It’s not a label you can randomly stick on any passage that doesn’t grip you.
So what exactly is it? Prepare yourself for a quick grammar lesson. Prepared? Good.
In any language you have two primary categories of words, nouns and verbs. If you’re reading this and you’re a writer, I jolly well hope you know what those are. But just in case…
Nouns are ‘things’, though languages like English (the slut of the language world) are a bit hazy on the exact amount of ‘thingness’ necessary; witness our category of ‘abstract nouns’, ‘things’ like love, hate, freedom, happiness…
Verbs are ‘doing words’. Actions. Words like jump, run, swim, sashay…
Now, each of these categories (nouns and verbs) can be inflected for a variety of different things, and the things you can inflect them for depends on the language you’re speaking. For today, I’ll keep it simple and stick to English and, because we’re theoretically talking about passivity, to verbs :)
Verbs can be inflected for tense (past, present, future), aspect (perfect, imperfect, progressive) and voice (active, passive). It’s been a while since I did this at uni, so if I’ve missed something that English verbs can inflect for, don’t shoot me ;) (Oh, number and person!)
So. Verbs can inflect amongst other things for passive voice. What does this actually mean?
It means this. In every sentence (in English, in simple terms, bear with me here… O:)) you have at the very least a subject (which is a noun) and a verb (which, oddly, is a verb). Eg:
Sarah runs. –> ‘Sarah’ is the subject noun, and ‘runs’ is the verb.
You can also have slightly more complex sentences with a subject noun (S), a verb (V), and an object noun (O). Eg:
Sarah eats food. –> ‘Sarah’ is the S, ‘eats’ is the V and ‘food’ is the O.
These sentences are in active voice. Why? Because the subject noun is the one performing the verb – they are the agent. That’s important. Memorise that. Because that’s what changes with passive voice.
In passive voice the subject noun doesn’t perform the verb; it’s the thing the verb is done to – the patient. Example:
The food was eaten by Sarah. –> ‘food’ is still the patient, the thing being eaten. ‘Sarah’ is still the agent, the thing doing the eating. BUT ‘food’ is now the S, and ‘Sarah’ is now the O. Why? Because I said so.
If that’s not a good enough reason, then check out the word order. English is what’s known as an SVO language – meaning the sentence structure will always be Subject-Verb-Object. We do that so when we hear or read it, we know who the subject is. Other languages use inflections to show that, so can afford to be free and easy with their word order.
So, that’s passive voice. Good clues for its existence are those little helper words in there – ‘by’ and ‘was’.
HOWEVER. And this is a big ‘however’, because this is where most of the confusion stems from. ‘Was’ is an indicator of passive voice. Yes? Yes. But not always.
“Avoid all ‘was’s.” “‘Was’ is passive.” Et cetera. This is something I see a lot. And it’s not true. Not all ‘was’s are indicative of passive voice. There’s an easy test for this: if you can stick a ‘by Fred’ on the end, then it’s passive. If you can’t, it isn’t. Eg:
I was hot. –> I was hot by Fred. Uh, no. Thank you.
The dog was hit. –> The dog was hit by Fred. Sure, if he’s nasty enough.
I was told passive voice was something to avoid. –> This one’s tricky, because there are two of the little suckers. I was told by Fred? Yep, no problemo. Passive voice was something to avoid by Fred? Nope, sorry. Not today.
So where’s all this confusion coming from?
‘Was’ and its affiliates (be, am, are, is, were etc) may not always be indicative of the passive voice, but it sure as heck can be indicative of passive writing.
What’s passive writing? Weeelll… That’s a question that is unfortunately much harder to answer. And mostly, it relates to that old axiom, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ So, if you’re interested, head on to the next article in the Writerly Advice series: Show, Don’t Tell!
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