To Be or Not To Be: In Defense of the Passive Voice

To Be or Not To Be: In Defense of the Passive Voice

Recently, one of my critique partners asserted that any use of the verb to be formed the passive voice and deserved to be stamped out with as much vigor as possible. This got me to thinking about that misunderstood verb form and the use of passive voice in modern fiction.

All of my critique partners write in the past tense, so we were actually discussing the use of was and were. I maintained that using was in any sentence does not automatically make that sentence passive voice, and avoiding any use of it can make for a needlessly convoluted sentence structure.

When You Should Use Was and Were: 3 Examples

There are times when you simply must use was or were. Here are just a few stylistic examples:

1. Auxiliary Verb

To be is used to help another verb along.

Example: She was born in Seattle. He was educated in the finest private schools.

2. Linking Verb

When the subject needs to be associated with something.

Example: She was an anesthesiologist. They were the most feared defensive backs in all of football.

3. Past or Present Progressive

An ongoing action taking place in the past, especially if that action is interrupted.

Example: He was walking along the sidewalk when the ladder fell on him. He was plowing his way toward the end zone.

I’m not saying was/were is always the best verb, or that overusing it doesn’t account for some lazy writing. Often you’ll be able to choose stronger verbs or restructure a sentence to provide more character insight. The sentence “An education at the finest private schools money could buy could not make up for a lack of discipline at home” conveys both useful information and insight into character. But when things need to be simple, just use was. Your readers will thank you for it.

The Passive Voice Defined

So if using the past tense of to be doesn’t automatically make a sentence passive voice, than what does? Section 5.119 of The Chicago Manual of Style’s 16th edition defines the difference between active voice and passive voice as follows:

Voice shows whether the subject acts (active voice) or is acted on (passive voice).

A rule of thumb is that if you can complete the phrase with “by zombies” you’ve got passive voice.

Example: The car was driven . . . by zombies.

See?

When I first started writing fiction many years ago, I took to heart the advice to avoid passive voice, but my prose sounded flat and my dialogue stilted. That made me realize there are times when you need the passive voice. Here are just a few examples:

1. The Action Is More Important Than the Actor

Example: She would be working on the other side of those mountains, where those two centuries-old dams were being pulled down (by zombies).

He was promoted (by zombies), but not necessarily because he deserved it.

In both examples, we don’t necessarily need to know who performed the action.

2. The Actor Is Unknown

Example: Mistakes were made.

Orders were given.

Gifts were exchanged.

This can also be used to avoid or disguise responsibility, but I’m talking about fiction, not corporate or technical writing.

3. The Subject Is the More Important Part of the Sentence

Example: The child was struck by the shopping cart. (versus The shopping cart struck the child.)

In the first example, the child is the focus; in the second, the shopping cart is the focus. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather focus on the child than the shopping cart.

4. The Subject Needs to be the Recipient of the Action

Example: The branch was broken by the wind. (vs The wind broke the branch.)

Are you writing about the branch or the wind? In the first example, the branch is the subject; in the second, it’s the wind.

Example: The young outlaw was lynched by an angry mob who attacked the jail. (vs An angry mob attacked the jail and lynched a young outlaw.)

Are you writing about the outlaw or the mob?

Example: The family was poisoned by the one person they had trusted completely.

They were poisoned by their cook! has a bit more of a ring to it than The family’s trusted cook poisoned them.

My goal with this is not to provide the definitive essay on passive voice but I’d like to provide a little food for thought about a misunderstood piece of English grammar. As I close, I’ll leave you with a fine example of the beauty of the passive voice. In the opening of Richard III, William Shakespeare writes,

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.

I can’t imagine that said any other way.

Tell me your opinion: How do you decide when to use the passive voice and when not to?

To Be or Not To Be: In Defense of the Passive Voice

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About Marissa John | @marissajohnmj

Marissa John is a writer, blogger, historian, and social media enthusiast living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, son, and assorted pets.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I’ve always been a passive voice defender — it serves an important grammatical function (which you’ve outlined here!) yet it’s sorely misunderstood. Advice to stamp out all instances of “to be” makes me cringe.

    • Marissa John says:

      Amanda,

      I regret the heavy reliance on the active voice in modern fiction. Passive Voice can be a great tool and a great way to avoid awkward sentence structure to avoid it. There are times, when you just need it. I am so glad that my blog resonated with you.

      And TO BE — I’ve had a few conversations with writer friends over this and have come to realize that this simple verb must be one of the least understood in the English language. I told a friend recently that sometimes there is no other way to say HE WAS A DOCTOR than that.

  2. Alhough other ways exist to show that a character is helpless, or trapped, or in fact passive, or being persecuted, etc., the passive voice is one tool in our toolbox that we can use to deepen that feeling in a particular scene.

    The challenge, I think, is first to recognize the passive voice, and then to eliminate it when it doesn’t serve our purposes. It’s rare to find a manuscript where the writer has made a conscious decision to use the passive voice, however.

    • Marissa John says:

      S.J., so true. Passive voice can be a useful tool when used with restraint. I mostly wanted to get the dialogue going that it isn’t always necessary to completely stamp out the passive voice.

      • This is so nice to know. I always change the passive sentence just “because we’re supposed to” and there’re times when I think it sounds better to keep the passive. Thanks for informing us!

  3. thomas h cullen says:

    “That made me realise there are times when you need the passive voice..”

    Without reference, actually to passive voice, you still achieve a hit home with this Marissa.. All’s determined by the whole. Writers of all sorts, romance authors, fantasy authors, YA authors, American Mid-Western authors, European authors.. we all just have to sometimes do certain things, which is a struggle, as for everyone one of us there’ll be a particular something or other that goes against our own instinct, no matter how right it is.

    “..no matter how right it is.” The correct ending, to the previous sentence, you’d agree wouldn’t you? Yet I had to “remember” to include this! Originally forgetting to include it was my own instinct.

    There’s our actions, and there’s our external reality, and then there’s our psyche, which operates far faster, far greater..

    This is why people will so often fail to write properly.

    • Marissa John says:

      Thomas,

      Thank you for pointing out how passive voice can be a useful tool in the writer’s toolbox. You write eloquently about the flow and the feel of our language. Just as an actor’s task is to make the portrayal of a certain character seem effortless (when in reality it is far from that) I think our tasks as writers is to make the flow of the story seem just as effortless. Any story told without employing every tool seems unpolished. My goal was to get people to take a second look on that advice to throw out all passive voice. Sometimes, it’s necessary.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        Thank you. The extensive answer’s a reward (the more the communication, the always better the potential for progression).

        Everything comes down to the closing point, the one to do with our minds, versus the outside.. To just think an idea, and then an appropriate sentence, five seconds is all it may take: but to then write that sentence down, as it should be, the time may be one or two minutes!

        I’m now more and more conscious of this disparity, communicating with others.. With respect especially, to the trait of making such effort (not mentally, but physically) saying one thing, then forgetting to say the other (such as with the “no matter how right it is” instance, with you).

  4. Outstanding post! I’ll be sharing this with my critique group partners!

  5. Very thorough! I hate when people try to restrict your palate just because “you’re not supposed to do it.” I argue don’t fix it if it’s not broken, and there better be a problem you’re trying to solve if you’re telling me not to do something. Limiting me for limiting me’s sake feels simple-minded.

    Love this!

    • Marissa John says:

      Daveler

      I’m a bit of a rebel and the minute somebody tells me I can’t do something, I usually want to go right out and do it.

      I’m glad you found my blog helpful.

  6. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Marissa!

  7. Late last night, I revised a work in progress. I spent time on active/passive; and the reversal of the subject around the verb was so simple I wondered why I was so blind?

    Thank you for your words!

    • Marissa John says:

      You are welcome. This is something I struggle with & I felt inspired to share.

    • Marissa John says:

      John,

      I’m glad that I was able to help.

      I think passive voice gets a bad rap. I’m not saying the entire manuscript should be written in passive voice, but employed wisely, it can make an impact on your prose.

      Another famous passive phrase? “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Wow! How would that sound in direct voice? Ew! That’s how.

  8. Steve Mathisen says:

    This post has been found to be extremely useful…by zombies. (My attempt at passive voice humor.) 😉

  9. Hi K.M., I’ve sent for that book twice now, but have never received it, not to my best knowledge anyway. Could someone please resend or send it to me?
    my email and info are above.
    Thank you,
    Angela Lacey

  10. “Were you at home last night?”
    “I was.”

  11. Totally agree! Unfortunately I work in an industry that refuses to let go of bureaucratic prose, so I’m inundated with passive voice. But like most things in life, it’s about balance, and passivity is needed to maintain balance.

    • Marissa John says:

      Traci

      Passive voice definitely has its uses in corporate or technical writing. Thank you for pointing out how it’s all about balance.

  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Marissa. There are sometimes when only passive voice will work. I’m keeping this post close at hand. Great guest blog post Katie 🙂

    • Marissa John says:

      Lyn,

      I am so glad that this was helpful and you are right, there are times when the passive voice is the perfect way to turn the phrase.

  13. Invaluable post. However hard I try to remove ‘was’ and ‘were’ I keep finding exceptions that don’t read as intended. Now I know why. Thank you Marissa.

    • Marissa John says:

      Roland,

      You are welcome!

      There are definitely times to use ‘was’ and ‘were’ and it is perfectly correct to use one of them. When I come across them in my rough drafts, though, I ask myself if there is any other way to say the sentence using another verb or restructuring the sentence so that another verb can be used. Many times I can come up with something better, but for the times that I cannot, I usually take that as a sign that I’ve got it right.

  14. Marissa and K.M., great post on a hotly debated topic. Passive voice cannot always be avoided, but should be used, as has been said, with restraint. I’m currently writing a memoir. In telling my story, which like your historical fiction, I can’t avoid the past and often using passive voice avoids a rather long, convoluted, difficult to read sentence. Cheers for a little bit of passive voice sprinkled throughout like cinnamon in my coffee!

    • Marissa John says:

      Sherry,

      Wonderful analogy and you’ve got it correct, cinnamon in coffee. (One of my favorite combinations, by the way.)

  15. There is so much confusion out there about what counts as passive voice. I think Strunk and White are particularly unhelpful on that score. The “by zombies” rule is super helpful. I love it!

    • Marissa John says:

      J’aime,

      You are right about Strunk and White. I’ve encountered issues with more than one of their “rules” —- I disagree with their advice on the “Oxford Comma”.

      I realized this simple guide was necessary after trying to convince a friend that just because she had to use ‘was’ occasionally in a sentence, that is not automatically ‘passive voice’.

  16. I’m not a fan of many YA novels lately, but I’ve noticed that many were written in the first person POV in present tense (Hunger Games) and it sounds strange to me how “was” and “were” are sometimes used. Great article and I’ll be coming back to re-read it any time I am struggling with a particular sentence, which is quite often.

    • Marissa John says:

      L.K.

      I am glad this will be helpful.

      I’ve read some things where the writer had gone to great lengths to avoid ‘was’ or ‘were’ and it was exhausting to read.

  17. Great article!!! I’ve always thought the whole ‘down with the passive voice’ thing was overdone. It’s like our whole society demands excitement, all the time, now now now, even in its books. 🙁 Passive voice can be very useful, much as can active voice.

    • Marissa John says:

      Michael,

      Thank you!

      I find a sprinkling of passive voice can be quite helpful now and then. In an odd way, I find myself using the passive voice now and again as emphasis, to close or open a key scene or before a key sequence. Unrelenting active voice can be tiring for the reader, I believe.

  18. It’s like french cuisine. My step-father likes to add nutmeg to his gratin dauphinois. BLASPHEMY!

  19. Rita Bailey says:

    Like “Show, don’t tell”, the active/passive voice is a rule that needs to be broken occasionally. One critique partner often calls me on this and circles my “was” and “ing” verbs. Sometimes I can improve the sentence but other times I think it sounds better in the passive voice. Now I know why. Thanks for the lesson.

    • Marissa John says:

      Rita,

      You are welcome. I’ve had that same discussion with my writing critique group. “was” + …”ing” is NOT passive voice. It is the Past or Present Progressive and it serves a vital function in grammar. It conveys ONGOING ACTION TAKING PLACE either in the past or present (depending on whether you write in present tense.)

      Here is a VERY HASTY example: Her return was dredging up bucket loads of repressed emotions for him . . .

      is not the same thing at all as. . . . Her return dredged up bucket loads of repressed emotions for him

      In the first example, “he” has felt those emotions and continues to feel those emotions as the story is taking place. The second example tells a different story.

      i.e. Her return was dredging up bucket loads of repressed emotions for him and he had no idea how to channel any of them. (the action has NO stopping point. He is still grappling with those emotions.)

      vs. Her return dredged up bucket loads of repressed emotions for him until he got wise to her scheme. (the action has a stopping point. He figured out how to not be bothered by her.)

      this form also is helpful to interrupt ongoing action. . . . . She was zoning out in the checkout line at the grocery store when the chime of her mother’s ringtone on her cell phone yanked her back to the present.

      Isn’t English grammar fun?

  20. Jonathan Pepper says:

    This is a terrific article — I wish more writers and writing groups would read this before parroting the misunderstood advice, “Never use Passive Voice,” before evangelizing and labelling it some magical “rule” that ONE. MUST. FOLLOW.

    • Marissa John says:

      Jonathan,

      Me, too. Passive voice serves a vital purpose and some of the more beautiful passages in the English language are passive voice construction.

      I always ask myself if “was” is the right verb and if I can’t absolutely re-write the sentence any other way without creating a convoluted sentence, then “was” it must be.

  21. Janey Egerton says:

    Sorry, but your example for was as an auxiliary verb is a passive voice:
    He was educated in the finest private schools… by zombies.
    q.e.d. 🙂

  22. Marissa, this is such a helpful post. Probably twenty or more years ago this debate on the use of “was” got its start. Some editor was probably speaking to a group of new writers and bemoaned the improper and overuse of the word. Too many writers took that to heart and turned themselves, and their prose, inside out to avoid it. I contribute regularly to The Blood-Red Pencil blog, and we have discussed the topic there, as well. In one of my posts, I pointed out the fact that the use of “was” is warranted when there in an ongoing action. “He ran” implies he is now leaning against a park bench huffing and puffing. “He was running” implies he is still looking for that park bench on which to rest. (smile)

    • Marissa John says:

      Maryann – I think the progressive tense is severely misunderstood. He was running . . . . is not saying the same thing as . . . . He ran. Was is needed as a linking verb. (forget my bad example, as Janey pointed out above.)

      I’m glad this was helpful.

  23. Kate Martyn says:

    Excellent piece, and loving that rule of thumb. Related – thanks for a great belly laugh to start the day: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer … ” by zombies!

    • Marissa John says:

      Kate

      Or this one —— “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

      How else would you say this?

  24. Thank you for this post. The War on Was is one of my biggest pet peeves with writers.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Example: She was an anesthesiologist. They were the most feared defensive backs in all of …read more […]

  2. […] Jen Matera tells us how to keep voices distinct when using multiple points of view, and Marissa John discusses when you should use was and were. […]

  3. […] for his use of the subjunctive and prepositions but this is cited when grammarians give examples of passive voice: “Hamlet was written by William Shakespeare (passive) instead use “William Shakespeare […]

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