Thursday, March 20, 2008

Redlines Five: Passive Voice

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Last month, we looked at how to load description into a sentence for impact. In doing so, we reviewed the three main parts of a sentence: subject, verb, and object. This month, we’ll examine passive voice, which is a useful -- but dangerous -- way of obscuring the true subject of a sentence.

Let’s start with a quick review of the three parts of a sentence. Here’s our sample sentence from last month:

The dog ... barked ... at the intruder.
subject ... verb ... predicative object

It’s a simple sentence in active voice. A simple sentence is one with one subject, one predicate, and no subordinate clauses. Sometimes sentences -- or parts of a sentence, such as the verb -- are compound. Here’s an example of a compound sentence (two independent clauses joined by a conjunction):

The dog ... barked ... and ... the intruder ... jumped.
subject ... verb ... conjunction ... subject ... verb

Keep this in mind for later.

Has anyone ever told you to avoid passive voice? There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there about what passive voice is and what it can accomplish.

Here’s a terrible but accurate definition: passive voice removes the true subject from a sentence, and replaces it with the true object so that the true object is the subject within the sentence structure. With a definition like this, it’s no wonder that there is so much confusion!

It’s much easier to understand by looking at an example.
Active voice:
The dog ... barked ... at the intruder.
subject ... verb ... predicative object.

Passive voice:
The intruder ... was barked at.
subject (true object) ... verb

The dog -- the actor in the sentence, the one actually doing the barking -- has fallen out of the sentence and is only implied. The true object of the sentence, the intruder, functions like the subject.

Sometimes writers try to “fix” passive constructions by attaching the subject in the place where the object is usually found. As in:

The intruder ... was barked at ... by the dog.
subject (true object) ... verb ... object (true subject)

But the better fix is to put the sentence in active voice, letting the actor (the dog) be the subject and take the action, instead of being the object and receiving the action.

There will be times that you actually want to remove the subject from the sentence. For example, you may want to hide the identity of the subject, or it may be impossible to know the subject’s identity. Let’s say the point of view character is alone in a house and you want to heighten the tension. Passive voice might be appropriate. Here’s an example:

The doorknob ... was jiggled.
object ... verb

The pov character doesn’t know who is making the doorknob jiggle, so the subject is removed and the passive voice is appropriate. Hiding the subject creates tension. Who is jiggling the doorknob? The reader must turn the page to find out.

The problem with passive voice comes when the identity of the subject must be disclosed in order for the sentence to make sense. Remember our compound sentence?
The dog barked and the intruder jumped.

What happens when we put it in passive voice?
The intruder was barked at and jumped.

Sentences like this can slip into even the most lucid prose. The intruder looks like the functional subject, with a compound verb. But only one of the actions (the jumping) is being taken by the intruder. The other action (the barking) is being taken by a dropped subject. The result is confusing, even though there are only seven words in the sentence.

If your sentence feels tangled and you suspect that passive voice might be the problem, here is the fix:
1. Identify the verb. In the sentence, “A home run was scored by Sally,” the verb is “was scored.”
2. Next, identify who is taking the action of the verb. In the sample sentence, the action of the verb is scoring, and Sally is the one doing the scoring, so the actor is “Sally.”
3. Next, identify the structural subject of the sentence. In the sample sentence, the subject is “home run.”
4. If the actor is not the subject, you’ve got passive voice. Put the actor back in charge of the action by untwisting the parts of speech, and you’ll eliminate the passive voice: “Sally scored a home run.”

If this four-step fix doesn’t seem to apply to your tangled sentence, then passive voice might not be the problem. There may be something else clouding the meaning. Next month, we’ll look at other confusing types of passive construction that might be the culprit, including the dreaded “that” construction.


This is the sixth in the Redlines series.
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.



Anonymous said...

I hate to pick nits on Good Friday morning, but 'the doorknob was jiggling' isn't passive voice. The doorknob (subject) is performing an action (jiggling). And the whole thing happens in past tense.

This has the same _function_ as 'the doorknob was jiggled' or the overly coy 'someone was jiggling the doorknob' and, in my opinion, works best, because we have a definite actor in the sentence.

I want to hear the other side of this particular coin: under which circumstances do you feel that passive voice is a good choice?

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

Would passive tense be "The doorknob was being jiggled" instead of "The doorknob was jiggling", which is past progressive?

I can see a line like that if the speaker thought to himself, "The doorknob was being jiggled by somebody...or something." (passive tense). This puts the revelation of the "or something" at the end of the sentence where it could arguably have the most impact. The speaker could also think to himself: "Somebody, or something, was jiggling the doorknob." (active tense) This removes the emphasis from the "or something", though.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Hey, Green Knight, what about "The doorknob jiggled."? Since it's the doorknob doing the dance, that seems the most compact way to put it.

My question is related to that was -ing phrasing -- "the doorknob was jiggling."

Is that really passive voice, since the subject is there? Given that the "was" is necessary for the -ing phrase (participle or gerund; damn if I can remember the difference although I know there is one), does the "was" immediately indicate passive voice?

Anonymous said...

Writer and cat, note that you call it passive Tense and active Tense. Verb tense is not active or passive. Verb tense is present, past or future [and a few others]. This mixing of 'tense' and 'voice' is what confuses lots of people and sets them off in trying to fix 'passive voice' by changing tenses.

The trick is to look at the meaning of the parts of the sentence and what is acted upon. 'Was being' is a major clue as is a phrase 'was xxxxing by'. Look for those and you'll find the passive Voice.

[next comment a question to Theresa]

Anonymous said...

Now my question. Theresa, could you please address other passive forms besides the 'to be' ones? Or are there any?

Example 1: ['passive' in italics]
Leaning back, he noticed a plaster ceiling rose with an anchor pattern, typical of the times the house was built, and obviously influenced by Mr McDowell and his work at the nearby shipyards.

Example 2:['passive' in italics]
Her mind wandered back to the day after her parents were killed and she herself had narrowly escaped death.

Example 3: ['be' is a state]
Julia felt her breathing slow as she realised her estranged confidante would soon be on the line to help her.

Example 4: ['was' is a state]
She was a tightly strung person and didn’t need any stimulants.

Example 5: [critter comments in [ ] ]
‘Stop that, you bad girl!’ She pulled Michelle’s arm, perhaps a bit too roughly. [The words I lined through (perhaps a bit too) were passive. I think in this situation, you’d want to eliminate every passive word or sentence to keep the tension high. She jerked Michelle’s arm. The child cried louder.]

That's probably enough. Comments anyone?

Edittorrent said...

Well, okay, except that doorknobs don't jiggle themselves. Someone (or something) must be acting upon the doorknob in order for it to move. But I'll go back and edit that out of progressive, if that helps eliminate confusion.

"Was" doesn't immediately indicate passive voice. In this case, "was jiggling" is a progressive tense.

Katie Reus said...

I have a CP who highlights every single passive section even when it's appropriate. I think I might send her this blog, hmmm... ;)

Anonymous said...

doorknobs don't jiggle themselves

I'd say, that's a convention of language without which we would not see any inanimate objects as actors in sentences, and you could never write 'the bells rang 'songs rose into the air' or 'the houses huddled together', because someone needs to ring that bell, and the other two are weirder still.

And I find that quite often _assigning_ actions to items that do not, in the strictest sense of the word, act, is the key to creating lively prose, to keeping a sense of movement in descriptive passages. Just like a good painting or photograph cannot be taken in in one look, but instead draws the eye from one element to the next and invites you to explore, description ought to flow.

I've fought long and hard to make my settings more into characters, more active, more existing in their own right, instead of drawing every observation back to a person who happens to be there. "She saw the doorknob jiggling' is another alternative, but is it _better_?

Ad sometimes you want that ambiguity. 'The doorknob jiggled' - did the character imagine it? Was the light glancing off it? Did the cat jump on it from the other side? Did a heavy vehicle drive past? Was it an earthquake? 'Someone jiggled' implies narratorial certainty - whoever reports it, knows that there is someone on the other side. 'The doorknob jiggled' leaves me with more options.

writtenwyrdd said...

I'd like to thank you both for doing this blog. Very informative. I've been going through the older posts and there's a lot there to love!

Dave Shaw said...

A spurious thought:

Doorknobs rattle. Fat jiggles.

Sorry, couldn't help myself. ;-)

Anonymous said...

'rattle' for me means more forceful and associated with noise. Jiggle is quicker and closer to 'quiver' or 'shudder'. It might not be the word I would have chosen, but I can picture what it does.

The doors to my airing cupboard jiggle when my neighbour walks up the stairs.