Passive Voice

I’m writing about this with the aid of Glencoe/McGraw-Hill’s Writer’s Choice Grammar and Composition. Texas Edition. Well, okay. As a native Texan who’s never lived in any other state (any other town, for that matter), I feel we deserve our very own creative writing textbook version.

All this flap about passive voice drives me a little crazy. What is this accursed editorial thing? “The form of a verb used when the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb.”

Someday I’m going to have to read this whole book. I borrowed it from the son of an English teacher at my high school. And, buster, it’s been a long time since 1976. For now I just skipped in the contents to the section on verbs, since this is where the conflict lies. Active voice is where the “subject of the sentence performs the action.” See? I had to read it four times and decided to just quote directly from the text. Easier that way.

“The coach praised the team.” Active enough for ya?

And when the action is performed on the subject “The team was praised by the coach.”, that’s passive.

Oh, crap. The first example is smoother and more concise, isn’t it? And concision will get thrown for a loop, invariably, when you use the auxiliary verb be with the past participle of the verb, its tense being determined by the auxiliary verb.

Huh? Allow me to demonstrate by forming my sentence with the help of Glencoe. “The writer was confused as hell.” See? Past tense of be is was, which means I had to use the past tense of confuse, confused. I just managed to passive voice myself four times right there. Way to go! But is (dammit!) there another way to phrase that sentence?

The writer’s confusion abated. The writer’s confusion cleared.

The Writing Center (>passive voice) says: The form of “to be” (is, are, am, was, were, has, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a verb in the past participle which usually, but not always, ends in -ed” will be passive voice. The part that gets me is the “not always.” Isn’t there always a not always?

Ha! So I didn’t use was even though my verb ended with -ed. But was I active? Beats hell out of me. I Googled that whole sentence, asking if it was passive voice just to see if I’d get a hit. No way.

Billy hit the ball. Active.

The ball was hit by Billy. Passive.


The ball (object) is the recipient of the action (hit) by the noun (Billy).

“I was hit by the ball.” Passive.

“The ball hit me.” Active.

Concision, concision.

The Writing Center says it’s not all that difficult to identify passive voice. They included a few myths on the subject. One, that your grammar checker will catch it for you. Wrong. Passive voice isn’t grammatically incorrect so your grammar checker will let it breeze right on by and your editor will glove that fly ball. Yer out!

Passive voice never uses first person. Look above. “I was hit by the ball.”

Never use it? There are times when passive voice might be preferable. “He had barely gotten by on social security.” We can’t say “He barely got by on social security” if my subject here is dead. Can we???? That would be present tense, wouldn’t it???

I guess in that case it would be okay. Jeez. I really have to read this book.

(Was that passive voice?)

Rephrase: I must read this book. You can’t get more active than that.


2 thoughts on “Passive Voice

  1. “The writer was confused” isn’t passive voice. Confused is a bit of an odd word in that it can be an adjective or a verb. So in this sentence it’s an adjective. This is simply a description of your mental state. When is/was/were etc are combined with an adjective, it’s not an indication of passive voice.

    “The writer was confused by the dumbass writing advice” turns confused into a verb, and at that point we’ve got a passive voice sentence because the dumbass writing advice is the thing performing the action.

    I’ve never really had a problem figuring out which sentences use passive voice, which is probably because I studied Latin at school, and Latin makes a big deal about this kind of thing. But I’ve seen more confusion about this than any other writing “rule” – people thinking they have to remove every “was” in their writing and generally tying themselves in knots. My own view is that the stuff about passive voice is overblown. Some people have a huge problem with passive voice taking over, and they need to get it under control. Everyone else can relax. You don’t need to take every instance of passive voice out of your work. It’s worth taking sentences and playing about with them to see if you can make them better, but otherwise you can let it go.


  2. Passive voice is an interesting animal. It’s only real sin is being “less,” which indeed if it is to prevalent can lessen the piece as a whole. On the other side it does indeed have a purpose, particularly in dialogue, but also in narration if you actually want that subdued effect it gives. Not everything should be active, some things are passive, said off hand, not forceful. Admissions will tend to skew this way.

    Compare this to the odd and more clear cut case of the double negative. Some languages have double negatives built in for a purpose (I wish I could find the article or pod cast that was talking about this a year (or more) ago.) Passive voice should be used less, but don’t avoided it like the plague. It is arguably the slightest form of hedging. In that it doesn’t, but softens. Double negatives are arguably the strongest form of hedging, as they sort of say the opposite, but don’t. (Mind you sometimes they are used as intensifiers, and this is actually the bad grammar case against them. Example: “I don’t know nothing.”)

    So, not never, but very rarely, and intentionally. This internally, as you do above, says, there is a time and a place, and again, particularly in dialogue, or more personable form. A great example of a good use of the double negative is the “common” formation of. “Not unlike,” which tends to imply that flaws in the comparison are obvious, but a certain semblance of comparison is possible to draw. They are also used in sensitive situations to soften the impact. “Time is not unlimited,” is seemingly a common modern reference case as used once by Obama, as president.

    In both cases there is also a logical formation. “Not never,” while a double negative is the logical negation of an implied never. This is most apt as a response in the vein of, “never say never.” By the same token if one is reporting the facts, and wishes to “not take a side,” or imply a tacit agreement, passive voice is… well, passive.

    Many of these things – it is worth noting – are cultural. As I said (and sure wish I had the links to prove it) some language have double negatives more built in. (Speaking as a programer they are used heavily in all programing languages, as the need to determine the TRUE condition of a false condition, is a critical logical case. !False (not false) == True) English has culturally adopted the idea they are vestigial, as it were. Passive voice, and adverbs are getting the same pressure put upon them. Ironically two of the three simplify language, arguably good, but adverbs (as the outlier) tend when removed to make language more complex. *shrug*


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