How to Write (Better): Attack Passive Verbs Like Bears on a Rodeo Clown

7 years ago

I am here today on a saintly mission for Strunk and Wagnall, because Passive Voice keeps rearing its ugly, passive head at writers who are freshly of my acquaintance. On a listserv I enjoy, someone recently posted that their writing group was telling them that in order to get rid of passive voice, they should get rid of the word "was" and murder  EVERY single 'ing' word and replace it with the  'ed' version. Then the SAME question came up when I was trying to peaceably drink a grammatically untroubled snoggett of gin after a writer’s conference.

Then yesterday I got a VERY ODD email from a complete stranger asking me about verbs, which, really? “Hi Joshilyn, I like your novels, I see on your bio you used to be an English teacher, can you please explain how to use -ING? verbs...” Ooooooookay! Now granted, maybe he means gerunds, a potentially confusing INGishly constructed object? But a gerund is really just an ING verb frontin’ like a noun, and considering the other two verb queries that came my way recently, I choose to interpret this to mean the universe is sending me a message; I need to go to war against the misdefining of passive voice as a combo of "was" with any INGly verbages, lest I be haunted by this question nigh unto madness.

Now we all sing,   "Oh oh ohoh, oh oh oh!!!!" And put on our MC Grammar pants.  Mine are ELECTRIC purple, but they also come in silver, metallic blue, and gold.  *preeeeen*

Businesswoman in hotel conference room

If your writing partner tells you he or she is bothered by your verbs, you may be simply diffusing the energy of a thing by WASing it to death, but you may be perpetrating passive voice. Both are naughty. But Passive Voice, in which  the object is verbing the  subject, is not just about having a WAS in there---it's about sucking the life out of a perfectly good sentence. We hawt-grammar-pants-wearers much prefer Active Voice, when the subjects verbs the object.

ACTIVE VOICE: Bears ate the naked rodeo clown.

Here bears are acting upon a hapless, nude clown. This is a strong and exciting structure. Unless you are the clown. Then it kinda sucks.

PASSIVE VOICE: The naked rodeo clown was being eaten by bears.

 Here is a bleh version of that sentence, all excitement removed by the use of passive voice. The
object is now the subject. In other words, the thing acted upon (in this case, eaten) is in the driver’s seat. Letting the eaten guy drive the sentence strips out a lot of energy.

KILL IT ALL! KILL IT! Just like bears killed that clown, unless you are very clever and know the rules and are craftily deciding to break them for deliberate and good reasons. I’ve seen it used, for example, to establish character. I once read a story where the main character never spoke in active voice, and it made for a weird, disjointed, removed narration. It worked, but only because the narrator was a masochistic sex slave who was only ever  acted upon and never acted.  The sentences reflected that. It was QUITE disturbing and hugely effective.

Once all the passive voice is gone, look at the scene. Yes, WAS diffuses the verb and slows things down. But this is fine, if it is what you want.

A GOOD WAS VERBING CONSTRUCTION: When I got home, the psycho-killer was sitting in the chair, sipping sweet tea.

The folks who asked me about verbs had been told that the above would be an example of Passive Voice.  It is not. It is absolutely active voice.

The psycho killer, the subject, is acting upon the chair. Also, the WAS VERBING construction is good here. It is a quiet, reflective moment, involving tea, and an implied lack of movement. He was sitting in the chair before you got home, and he is still sitting there. You do not see him move from standing to sit.

A BAD WAS VERBING CONSTRUCTION: The psycho killer was shooting Lawrence in the face.

Still active voice, so no one is going to release the bears on you. The killer is the one acting upon Lawrence’s face, but see how this reads...drippy and slow? Actually being shot happens too FAST and BANGBANG-y for the structure to match the action.

You want to say this: The psycho killer shot Lawrence in the face.

BOOM! Fast. Clippy. Strong Verb. 

You won't overuse "was" if you concentrate on making the structure reflect the mood of the sentence. Let function dictate form. As for Passive Voice? It can be insidious, but if you remember to make your subject act upon its object, you'll soon be bragging, "My sentences are surely not being constructed with any of that dern Passive Voice!" 

Oh. Wait...

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