Blog by VONNIE DAVIS -- International, Award-Winning Romance Author: Adventurous...Humorous...Amorous.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Passive Voice

Everyone knows they are supposed to use active voice—not passive—when they write, but a lot of folks have difficulties identifying passive and often confuse it with past progressive or other verb tense forms. Many think they can identify passive voice entirely by searching for the word “was.”

They couldn't be more wrong.

Stick with me folks...

Passive voice should not be confused with verb tense.

Verb tense is action + time. What happened and when.

Passive/active voice is the subject in relation to the action. Is the subject the doer or the recipient of the action?

As writers, it is seriously important for us to become proficient in the tools of our craft, and grammar is the most important tool. After all, writing is infinitely more than stringing pretty words together. So I’ve done a little studying through Calvin's grammar books. What I hope to do here is explain what passive voice is—and what it is not.

If I want to show Grant came home to the continual screaming of his wife, I would write When Grant opened the door to his house, his wife was screaming. Now the "was-is-passive" thinkers would change it to When Grant opened the door to his house, his wife screamed. To me, that implies one scream...boom...done. But that's not what I want to convey. I want Grant to hear his wife's continual scream from the time he opens the door, runs up the steps to their bedroom and chases off the man who is beating his wife. Her screaming is on-going. Thus I would write it using "was" because it is happening over time. Past progressive, NOT passive. It is written in active voice.

And so I repeatDo not confuse verb tense with passive or active voice.

Passive or active are determined strictly by the doer or recipient of the action.

And, believe it or not, there are actually times when you should use passive voice. Gasp!

Key to Passive Voice: Identify who or what is doing the action. If the subject of the sentence is performing the action, then it’s active, regardless of the verb tense used.

If the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action, then it is passive.

Active: She hit him.

“She” is the subject of the sentence. She is doing the action, i.e. she’s doing the hitting, actively. Active tense.

Passive: He was hit by her.

“He” is the subject of the sentence, but he’s not the one doing the action. He’s the recipient of the action performed “by her”. So he’s passively accepting a sock to the jaw. Passive tense.

Rumor to Dispel!!!

The word “was” indicates passive voice.

No, not all the time. WAS is not a four-letter word. If you see “was” in combination with a verb ending in “ing” then it is probably not passive voice. It is probably past progressive showing a continuous action that happened in the past.

For example:
He was walking.

Past progressive, active, not passive. “He” is the subject of the sentence and he was actively, continuously walking, in the past.

If you see “was” in combination with a verb ending in “ed” or “en,” etc, then it is probably passive voice.

For example:
The tray of food was dropped by the waiter. Passive. The tray of food is the recipient of the action. It was dropped by the waiter.

Not Passive Example 1: “Was” + “-ing” verb

He was walking to the store when a bus hit him.

“Was walking” indicates that he was in the act of walking—continuously walking—when he got hit by a bus. This is not passive voice. It is past progressive. You can think of this verb tense as “in the progress of doing something,” with the emphasis on progress. Hence, progressive.

Remember: verb tense is action + time--the tenses tell you what was done and when it was done.

You would not say:
He walked to the store when a bus hit him.

Not only does this sound strange, but it suffers from temporal distortion because “walked” indicates that he had finished walking when the bus hit him. Excuse me? Was he just standing there? Or maybe you mean, he walked to the store after the bus hit him.

That’s what I mean by temporal distortion. You no longer know what the correct timing is in this sequence, because you used the wrong verb tense in a misguided effort to avoid “was.”

Clearly, it is not the verb tense that indicates if a sentence is active or passive, because both of those sentences were active.

Passive Example 2: “Was” + “ed” verb

He was attacked by a bear at the corner of 5th and Main.

“Was attacked” here indicates the bear actually performed the action—not the man. This is passive voice. And it is passive voice told using past tense.

By changing it to A bear attacked him at the corner of 5th and Main, we now have active voice. The bear is the subject of the sentence and is performing the action.

Examples of Various Verb Tenses + Passive/Active Voice

Just to prove this point, here are examples of more verb tenses, used in sentences constructed using first passive voice and then active voice. Some of the examples are extremely awkward—sorry about that.

Note again, it is the subject in relation to action that indicates passive or active voice. It is not the verb tense, which is action + time. (Although if you see the word “being” in the sentence, chances are good that it’s a passive construction, unless it’s future progressive.)

PRESENT - NOW Verb Forms

Present Tense

The cart is dragged by her into the woods. Present tense, passive voice
The cart is the recipient of the action.

Now, active voice:
She drags the cart into the woods. Present tense, active voice
She is taking action.

Present Perfect Tense (indefinite time/continues to present). Uses has/having with the verb's past participle, e.g. ending in -ed.

The cart has been dragged through the woods by her since 2PM.
Present tense (continues in the present), passive voice.

A better passive voice example is:
Discrimination has undergone examination for its effect on society since 1960.
Present tense (continues in the present), passive voice.

Now, active voice:
She has dragged the cart through the woods since 2PM.
Present tense (continues in the present), active voice

Present Progressive (continuous action, happening now). Uses am/is/are with verb ending in -ing.

The cart is being dragged by her through the woods.
Present progressive (continuous action, now), passive voice. Note "being".

Now, active voice:
She is dragging the cart through the woods.
Present progressive (continuous action, now), active voice.

When is it okay to use passive?

There are some times when you have to use passive, or at least want to use passive, in order to preserve emphasis and not to change the subject.

Remember the big key: passive versus active is essentially the subject of the sentence in relation to the action. If you write everything in active voice, you can sometimes inadvertently change the subject to an entity (e.g. a cart) that is less important.

When you write, one of the things you really have to think about is: who or what is the “focus” of attention right now? Depending upon your answer, you may need to use passive voice if you don’t want to shift the focus, even temporarily, to another subject.

In other words, if you don’t want to change the subject.


What happened to Frank?” he asked.
“He was hit by a bus on his way to work,” the receptionist said before breaking into tears.

“He was hit by a bus” is a passive construction. But, most people would agree, the important focus in this conversation is Frank.

Now, if you were really, really against passive voice, you could have written this entirely in active voice:

“What happened to Frank?” he asked.
“A bus hit him on his way to work,” the receptionist said, turning on her computer.

Yes, that does work and is entirely active voice, but it shifts the focus to the bus and away from Frank. It distances you from Frank and makes him less important. For some people, if they are not paying close attention, they may actually think this is a non sequitur and repeat their question, because they were expecting to hear an answer that had Frank as the subject—not a bus.

There is nothing wrong with this, but in real conversation, we often use passive voice to keep the focus on the person we are discussing, instead shifting to a thing, like a bus.

Note: some people (and therefore, characters) will prefer to use active voice in the above conversation because they prefer to keep people at a distance. By changing the subject to “the bus” the speaker may be more comfortable talking about the accident because it makes Frank’s plight more distant and therefore, more bearable.

This is one way that you can make active/passive voice work for you—and help you define your characters. A hero who is uncomfortable with emotions and likes to keep people at a distance, may prefer to say, “A bus hit Frank.” It’s direct, impersonal, and active. Those may be your hero’s main traits.

On the other hand, a hero who is emotionally connected to Frank and focused on him and his tragedy, may say, “Frank was hit by a bus this morning.” It reveals his focus on Frank and the writer can use that to show his emotional “reference.”

This “focus effect” is why many newspaper articles use more passive voice. The news articles want to maintain the emotional focus on a particular person, especially if that person is famous.

To keep your writing active and not passive, identify your subject. Every sentence must have an "actor" and "action." In the sentence, Tom ran across the street, Tom is the actor and ran is the action.

When you use a sentence containing "was," ask yourself if it's truly needed. If your use of was indicates the action is continual over time, then, yes, it's needed. If replacing "was raining" with "rained" portrays the same meaning, then take it out. After all, many editors are clammering for less "-ing" words. We must silently comply or effectively argue our case.

Learn your grammar rules. They will serve you well and give you great peace of mind as you write. You'll be a stronger writer for it.


Charmaine said...

Very good article and good insight. Like the examples!

Vonnie Davis said...

Thanks Charmaine, it was great revisiting those grammer rules. At times my memory does not serve me well, I need to recheck those old grammer rule books to make sure I'm doing things properly. We owe this to our readers.

Anonymous said...

Such a blessing to have this in print. SOME folks get caught up on "was" as if it's the ONLY rule of GOOD writing. Thanks so much for the reminder.
Donnalynn Davis

Jannine said...

Vonnie, you have revisited the Passive Voice dilemma and did so in an easy-to-understand way. This post is a keeper.

Jenn Nixon said...

Great post, sharing this with friends!

Vonnie Davis said...

Thanks Donnalynn. I had to read and reread those rule books to make sure I had things right. was a dark and stormy night in my brain. ;-)

Vonnie Davis said...

Thanks Jannine. There are times was works; it does not equal passive voice.

Vonnie Davis said...

Hi Jenn, thanks for stopping by. Share away. We all need help clarifying things now and again.

EditorSusan said...

Wonderful post, Vonnie! I wish more people understood this very crucial difference. I'm glad I'm not the only one who wants to stand up for WAS every once in a while :)

Vonnie Davis said...

Thanks Susan. Sometimes "was" gets a bad rap when it is exactly the word needed to achieve the desired effect.

Darcy said...

Thanks so much for this post, Vonnie. I've never entered many writing contests, but in a few that I did enter long ago, so many judges would change my use of "was" in the past progressive sense because they thought it was the forbidden past tense that I began to think I was doing something REALLY wrong. I appreciate you correcting that mistake for us in such a clear and cogent way.

Vonnie Davis said...

Darcy, we all need to revisit the rules every so often. There are so many. It's easy to forget and also confused to a degree. I like things simple and hope I presented it in an easy to grasp format.

Lynne Marshall said...

Great post! I now dub you the WRP grammar queen! I had the "was" beat out of me on the contest circuit years ago, and have gotten into all kinds of problems in my writing trying to avoid the word at all cost.

The "ing" versus "ed" on verbs is so important.

Thanks for a great and thorough post.

Vonnie Davis said...

Grammer Queen? Heaven's no. I'm too comma deficient to wear that title. If I have to pause to take a breath while reading my stuff, by golly, I sock a comma there. Drives my agent nutzzzz! Thanks for stopping by, Lynne.

Mackenzie Crowne said...

Ty Professor Davis. Bookmarking this.

Vonnie Davis said...

I hope it helps, Mac. Although you're doing quite well on your own. ((wink))

Nancy Jardine said...

I'm becoming paranoid about my use of 'was' in manuscripts since editors want a slash and burn-though like you say above it DEPENDS on what you wish to convey! Quick question-as a Scot we write grammar with two 'a's. How common is that form in the US? Is it interchangeable? Or do you always use 'e' as the last vowel?

Liz Flaherty said...

Good one, Vonnie.

Vonnie Davis said...

Oh, Nancy, I'd originally spelled it the Scottish way. LOL. Grammar. Then I looked at it and thought...hmmm...did I spell that wrong? So I changed it. Maybe I was right to begin with. I just checked the dictionary. It IS spelled with two A's. Yikes. My bad!

Vonnie Davis said...

Liz, thanks for stopping by to visit Vintage Vonnie.

Calisa Rhose said...

Great lesson post Vonnie. Something I struggle with even as an editor. It bears rereading as many times as it takes to get these right.

Nancy Jardine said...

Now I feel bad, Vonnie. I wasn't meaning to sound criticising in any way. When submitting to US publishers I've had to make so many changes to my spelling of words that I'm now making a wee checklist of ones I tend to get wrong, and ones my Word spellchecker doesn't flag up for American English.
My thanks for clearing that up, though. It means one more I don't have to worry about. :_)

Vonnie Davis said...

Hi Calisa, I bet you're a fastastic editor, just as you are an awesome writer.

Vonnie Davis said...

Nancy, dearheart, don't give it a second thought. I'm as famous for my bad spelling as I am for my strange comma usage. I'm glad you called it to my attention. No problem at all.