A Nit to Pick: Passive Voice

As writers, we all have the ginormous job of learning the craft of writing. Just like you wouldn't try to build a house and expect it to stand without first learning something about carpentry and architecture, you can't expect to just sit down and punch out a story with the expectation it won't stink unless you get a sense of what rules exist and why.

When I was in junior high and high school, we spent a lot of time focusing on eliminating passive voice from our writing. Though I may have cursed the Downingtown Area School District's secondary English department while I learned under their tutelage, I am immensely grateful for the way they taught me good mechanics back in the day. Now, when I say passive voice, I mean the classic, grammatical definition, which is:  "the voice used to indicate that the grammatical subject of the verb is the recipient (not the source) of the action denoted by the verb." It is a very specific construction rule...not a nebulous, opinion-based situation as some critiquers would have you believe.

The phrase "passive voice," in some writing circles, has come to encompass anything that happens in the story that is a little weak in terms of character choices or wording. People seem to throw the term like a lead blanket over phrases written with being verbs, or in perfect tense, or just blandly. THIS IS NOT WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT--and it makes me crazy when people call that kind of stuff passive voice.

I think I need this shirt.
If we are going to be the iron that sharpens iron we should be to one another, we owe it to the writing community to know our definitions. Passive voice, where the subject noun receives the action ("The hero was smitten by the evil-doer's mighty sword stroke") is clearly something we should avoid any time anything short of  verbal contortions makes it possible.

Progressive and perfect tenses are sometimes absolutely necessary in order to convey accurate chronology. The presence of a being verb has next to nothing to do with passive voice. Granted, whenever you can replace one of the twenty-three being verbs with an active verb, by all means, do so! And sometimes, passive voice works for effect or clarity. I would argue that instance comes once in a very great while, but it does arise.

My challenge to the new writers out there: if you didn't get a thorough grammar education in school (and if you are under about sixty years of age, chances are you didn't, because grammar became very unfashionable in the 1960's) do yourself the favor of studying up on your own. I know I'm still learning each day--filling in gaps that I've forgotten or never heard. In a day and age where actual literacy and deftness with language is on a rapid decline, we as writers must hold the line. Knowing what is good, solid construction, why, and when to depart from it, is just the beginning--the raw lumber from which excellent stories are built.

(And yes, I fully note the irony that the last fragmental portion of this post indeed utilizes passive voice!)


  1. THANK YOU! I am so glad I am not the only whom this drives crazy. I have tried arguing this with writers who give me blank stares. No, "He was reading a book" is not passive voice. It is not, it is not, it is not. "A book was being read by him" is passive. (And clunky. Which is why we don't use it.)

  2. That example made me laugh. Congratulations on constructing the worst sentence I've heard today. :) And it's true, just because "was reading" is not in the immediate tense where the story occurs, that doesn't make it passive tense. It might make it a little flimsy, but passive is the wrong word.

    And if "was reading" refers to something that happened prior to the current, on-screen action, then it's absolutely necessary that the sentence be worded with the phrase. Partial learning of the "rules" is just as perilous as not learning them at all, I think.

  3. "And if "was reading" refers to something that happened prior to the current, on-screen action, then it's absolutely necessary that the sentence be worded with the phrase."

    Thank you, again. Another point I keep trying to make with fellow writers. Too many want to get rid of every was/-ing combo in a book. BUT, there is a HUGE difference between:

    He was reading a book when I walked into the room.


    He read a book when I walked into the room.

    Really, people. Think about it.


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