The Dreaded Passive Voice
Self-Editing for the Know-It-All Author – Post #3
As an ESL teacher, who teaches grammar every day, and an author of several books, I believed I knew my grammar inside out. When I wrote the romantic comedy, The Hockey Player & the Angel, I had several of my English teacher associates read it for grammar. It came back with an A+. But when I sent it to an editor, she said I overused the passive voice.
I was appalled! How had the passive voice slipped passed my grammatically-honed eyes? The only answer I came up with was the manuscript was grammatically correct, but the passive voice was not suited for a soon-to-be-published genre novel. The passive voice slows the pace down. It disengages the reader by distancing them from the action and the experience. If you write genre, this is not what you want for your readers. You want your readers engaged and experiencing the moment. You want them in the story.
The following chart illustrates the passive voice in some verb and modal tenses and the active voice alternative. The examples are reworked from my novel Moses & Mac.
|Passive Voice||Active Voice|
|Present Simple||The cell phone is rewired into a grill for kabobs by Hassan.||Hassan rewires the cell phone into a grill for kabobs.|
|Past Simple||Sara’s search for biblical artifacts with powers of good and evil and everything in between wasn’t finished.||Sara didn’t finish the search for biblical artifacts of good and evil and everything in between.|
|Present Continuous||An adventure on Mackenzie’s big 3-0 birthday is being started.||Mackenzie is starting an adventure on her big 3-0 birthday.|
|Past Continuous||The rod’s whereabouts was being sent to someone in Professor Sara Braden’s family.||The rod’s whereabouts was sent to someone in Professor Sara Braden’s family.|
|Present Perfect||The underground tunnels have been excavated by Hassan and his cousins.||Hassan and his cousins have excavated the tunnels.
|Past Perfect||“I heard over the air waves that a helicopter had been confiscated on Mount Nebo by a female Interpol agent, a Vatican State librarian, a cute Orthodox Jewish woman and a skinny soccer player.”||“I heard over the air waves that a female Interpol agent, a Vatican State librarian, a cute Orthodox Jewish woman, and a skinny soccer had confiscated a helicopter on Mount Nebo.”|
|Future – Will||The Vatican Archaeological Services headquarters will be reopened.||The Vatican Archaeological Services headquarters will reopen.|
|Must||The underground tunnels must be shut down.||The underground tunnels must shut down.|
|Can||Moses’ rod can be found.||Mackenzie can find Moses’ rod.|
|Should||The whereabouts of the various powerful biblical artifacts should be found.||The new wannabe VAS agents should find the powerful biblical artifacts.|
|Future – Are Going To + Verb||“Agent Zingel is going to be escorting me to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and helping me to locate it.”||“Agent Zingel is going to escort me to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and help me locate it.”|
|Has/Have To||Moses’ rod has to be found before it causes global chaos.
|Mackenzie has to find Moses’ rod before it causes global chaos.|
|Had To||The bodies had to be checked before the forensic pathologist arrived.||Mackenzie had to check the bodies before the forensic pathologist arrived.|
Overwhelming? Yes! Keep it handy as a quick reference, but nothing beats knowing the differences and applying them while you’re writing.
So, how can you recognize the passive voice when writing or revising? “By” is the first big giveaway. In the chart, I used “by” in the present simple sentence: The cell phone is rewired into a grill for kabobs by Hassan. The subject of the sentence is the cell phone. But the cell phone can’t make anything. It can’t do the action of the verb. Hassan can. To make it active, I made Hassan the subject and the cell phone the object. Hassan rewires the cell phone into a grill for kabobs. The reader easily understands and “sees” or visualizes the action, the subject, and the object. The sentence is direct, concise, and easier to read, too. Make the noun responsible for the action, the subject of the sentence. Sometimes all you have to do is change the word order of your sentence, so “by” is eliminated.
In most of the other passive voice sentences I left out “by”, but I could easily have added it. Look at the passive “has/have to” sentence. Moses’ rod has to be found before it causes global chaos (by someone). If you can add “by” to the end of the sentence, which I can to mine, chances are it’s the passive voice. To make it active, I decided on who would find the rod and made that person the subject of the sentence: Mackenzie has to find Moses’ rod before it causes global chaos. The sentence is now in the active voice and more immediate for the reader. The reader can readily visualize it and grasp the meaning.
Another way to recognize the passive voice is through the overuse of the verb “be”. Take a look at all the verb forms of the passive sentences in the chart: is rewired, wasn’t finished, is being started, was being sent, have been excavated, had been confiscated, will be reopening, must be shut down, can be found, should be found, is going to be escorting me, has to be found, had to be checked. Be, be, and more be. If you remove the “be” in any of these sentences, you can probably make it active. You might have to rewrite the sentence or make sure the noun can do the action of the verb. The result is an easier sounding sentence and a more direct one. Readers won’t get lost in so many verbs and in their meaning.
You can take the active voice one step further. You don’t need to use the present or past perfect verb forms if time or dates aren’t important. The past will work just as well. Hassan and his cousins have excavated the tunnels, can become, Hassan and his cousins excavated the tunnels, without any loss of information or meaning. Same goes for the past perfect verb tense. I heard over the air waves that a helicopter had been confiscated on Mount Nebo by a female Interpol agent, a Vatican State librarian, a cute Orthodox Jewish woman and a skinny soccer player, can become, I heard over the air waves that a female Interpol agent, a Vatican State librarian, a cute Orthodox Jewish woman, and a skinny soccer confiscated a helicopter on Mount Nebo. Use the present perfect or past perfect when you need to specify exact time or dates. For flashbacks, start with the past perfect the first time you write about the recollection, move to past simple, and end in the flashback in the past perfect. The reader won’t stumble through the weight of all the “hads”, and neither will the flow of your writing.
You are probably wondering why the English language has the passive voice if it’s so dreaded. Believe it or not, it has a place as well as benefits for the author. An author can use to it to create mystery or add suspense. The murder of the VAS agent was done sometime during the night. The author doesn’t want you to know who committed the crime. Sci-fi writers also use it with success when they don’t want the reader to know something. The space station will be attacked on all sides if we can’t get our shields back up. You’re the writer. If you’re using the passive voice, it needs to have narrative, plot, or character value.
When you write your manuscript, you focus on character development, dialogue, setting, description, etc. But when you revise or edit, you should not only check for these elements, but also for grammar and sentence structure. This is when you should be aware of the passive voice and change it to the active. You want your writing to be strong, direct, concise, to move the narrative along, and easier to read. You want your readers engaged, to “see” and “feel” the action more readily, and to pull them into the story. The active voice will do all that.