By Jocelyn Nash Carlin
This past week I spent some time reviewing an older story to see if it was worth revisiting. In the process, I discovered a disturbing amount of passive voice. As a result, I think it’s time for a quick review of this basic principle of fiction writing: Active verb construction is (nearly) always better than passive verb construction.
*Disclaimer 1: Not all uses of “to be” are passive construction. You don’t have to eliminate all uses of “to be.”
*Disclaimer 2: Not all “-ing” words are passive construction. You don’t have to eliminate all uses of “-ing.”
*Disclaimer 3: Though you should try to use active construction whenever possible when writing fiction and narrative non-fiction, there are occasions when passive construction will work better for the flow of your narrative than active construction. Just be sure to use your passive voice thoughtfully and sparingly.
With those out of the way, how do you recognize and change passive construction?
Here’s the most basic rule:
If the subject of your sentence (the person, place, thing or idea) is performing an action, your construction is active. If the subject of your sentence is being acted upon (or receiving) the action, your construction is passive.
For example: “Zombies killed Josh,” is active. “Josh was killed by zombies,” is passive.
Rebecca Johnson, a professor at USMC, came up with a fun rule to help identify passive construction. She said, “if you can add the phrase ‘by zombies’ after the verb, you have passive voice.”
“The wall was toppled [by zombies].”
“Toby ate [by zombies] lunch.”
“The bill was signed [by zombies].”
“The story was told [by zombies].”
“Josh threw [by zombies] the ball.”
I’m sure you can tell where the “by zombies” addition works and where it doesn’t. The sentences where it works are in passive voice. All those examples were in the Past Simple Tense. Spotting the passive seems more complicated in other tenses, but the zombie rule still applies.
Let’s look at the Present Continuous Tense:
“Donna is singing [by zombies] a song.”
“A song is being sung [by zombies].”
See? The zombie rule still works.
Some writers argue that you should avoid using “-ing” constructions anyway (see what I did there?), for stylistic reasons. However, I say: your style is your style – not someone else’s. For a good review of when “-ing” is passive vs. when it functions as an adjective or present participle, see this blog post. And for a great breakdown of what active vs. passive construction looks like in all the verb tenses, see this post.
I hope this quick review will help exercise your grammar muscles as you get ready for more writing and editing.
*No words were harmed [by zombies] while writing this blog post.
ETA: the original link I provided for explaining present participles also includes a passive voice mis-identification, so to eliminate confusion I’ve edited to provide a link to a different article. Anyone interested can see the original link here.