Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Passives Made Simple... by Me

A recent critique of my WIP yielded an interesting comment. Apparently I overuse passive voice. And the "apparently" in the previous sentence does indicate a bit of skepticism on my part, because the sentence the "critter" marked wasn't even in passive voice.

Here's the problem: somewhere along the line, some critter circled a sentence in passive voice, said, "Tsk, tsk," and then shoved the manuscript back at the writer. The writer, left to his own devices, realized that the sentence contained the verb "was" (or "were," "is," "are," or some other form of the verb "to be.") This writer then eliminated these verbs from his manuscript, in the process correcting the passive voice issue, and soon began to crit others, without ever understanding what he or she was talking about.

What exactly is passive voice? Well, without digging out my grammar books, passive voice is a sentence construction in which the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb. The subject is passive. He does not perform the action. The action is performed upon him. For example:

John Doe was shot and left for dead on a deserted highway.

Did John Doe shoot himself? No (unless CSI later determines suicide), he was shot by someone else.

The alleged killer was arrested four hours later.

He obviously didn't arrest himself. This action was performed upon him by the police.

Now, does that mean all passive voice is bad? No. There are many legitimate uses for passive voice. The key is to avoid the overuse of passive voice. The best guidelines I've seen recommend staying below 5%. Microsoft Word does check for this, and the samples of my writing that I've checked come in at around 3% passive. So I'm off the hook, right?


What the critter noticed was not passive voice, but an overuse of weak verbs. Now that doesn't mean you should never use forms of the verb "to be." Linking verbs can introduce predicate nouns (or nominatives) and predicate adjectives, and are frequently used in descriptive passages.

John Doe was the Assistant District Attorney. (Predicate noun, John=attorney)

His body was cold.
(Predicate adjective, cold describes body)

Neither of those sentences employ passive voice.

But consider the following sentences from my WIP. Notice how changing the weak verb "was" improves and/or tightens each sentence:

The baby was now asleep.

The baby opened one sleepy eye, then continued snoring.

I tried to unroll it (the car window), but it was missing a handle, so I opened the door instead.

I tried to unroll the driver’s side window, but ended up scratching my hand on the broken stub of the window crank. I opened the door instead.

I was the kind who wanted to know what I was agreeing to before I agreed to it.

I wanted to know what I was agreeing to before I agreed to it.

Charlotte smiled. It was the first time I’d seen her smile all day. She was now missing a front tooth.

Charlotte smiled for the first time that day, her grin revealing a missing front tooth.

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