Passive voice avoidance strategies


A friend asked me if I had any posts about passive voice. Realizing that I didn’t, I answered her question and then put the post on my task list.

Interestingly enough, a day later, I was reading Victoria Mixon’s The Art & Craft of Fiction (yes, I read the second one first—sue me, or rather, don’t) and she wrote about the very topic 🙂

Before we get going, I just want to say that I meant to have this post up yesterday, but life intervened. A visit from some friends from out of town necessitated the cleaning of the house and shovelling of the drive. A sick mother required groceries. Not wanting to cook after cleaning, Phil and I went out to supper. And so the day disappeared. I got most of the post written yesterday, but not all of it.

Today, I need to get this post up, compile my curation posts for the week, and then I have to work some on the course I’m going to be facilitating at the beginning of February, return to revising IoS, and write a few more words in Marushka.

Nothing like having ambitious plans for what should be a day of rest 😉

Let’s start with passive sentence structure

Think of a relatively simple sentence.

The dog licked my ice cream.

Most likely, you thought of a sentence with a straightforward structure, as I did: Subject (noun) and predicate (verb and possibly object, or receiver of the action depicted by the verb).

Here is the same sentence written with a passive structure:

My ice cream was licked by the dog.

See what I did there?

A passive sentence switches the positions of the subject and object in the sentence and so the verb also has to change, generally, we have a “to be” verb and by. That’s how you recognize passive sentence structure: “to be” plus by.

Now, you may be thinking: I don’t write like that. I don’t try to write that way. Is this really an issue?

Well, some people want to sound more educated and awkward sentence structure sounds smart. Counterintuitive, but it’s kind of what we’ve been taught.

Academic texts and books from past centuries tend to use English that is a little different from what we speak and write commonly today. It sounds strange, awkward, but these writers are held up as authorities, paragons, or otherwise people-who-know-how-to-write.

So we learn (unconsciously) that strange or awkward means better. That’s where the tendency to passive structure can come from.

Also, in the work world, business writing may utilize passive structure to avoid sounding accusatory, or to distance the writer from an unpopular policy that the writer may not agree with but must nonetheless enforce.

You have to be critical about your thought process around phrasing. Both academic texts and classic literature are written in the way they are because they are serving a specific purpose, or because language changes over time. Business writing is all about rhetoric, purpose, and audience.

Using passive structure may have been acceptable at the time a particular book was written, and it may be required in academic or business contexts. It’s not wrong. It’s just not something you should do in the short story or novel you write today.

In fiction, you want to effectively simulate the way people speak.

An extension of passive structure included in “passive voice”

Passive structure is more clearly displayed in a sentence that has a predicate including an object. That’s where you see the “to be” plus by tell.

What if you don’t have an object in your sentence?

The dog ran.

Passive version:

The dog was running.

This is where you get the prohibition against “to be” verbs or progressive verb forms (-ing verbs) in general.

If you excise all “to be” verbs from your writing, you will find that you have a HUGE problem. Sometimes you need to use them.

With regard to progressive verb forms, don’t use them if a simpler version of the sentence can be written instead.

Zero words

Also roped into passive voice by some editors are words like “only” or “just,” or phrases like “began to,” “started to,” or “tried to.”

In general, “only” and “just” are called zero words. They can be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence from which they’ve been removed. Try a simple Find exercise to remove these words from your text. It will be rare that you absolutely must have either of those two words.

The other group of phrases are symptoms of what I like to call the Yoda fallacy. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda says to Luke, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Like “just” and “only”, “tried to,” “started to,” or “began to” can often, though not all the time, be removed without changing the essential meaning of your sentence.

These words sap the energy from your sentences.

Other verb forms and contractions

If you write a passage describing past events, a flashback, chunk of backstory, or to convey essential events that don’t need the full scene treatment, you have to use the pluperfect verb form.

I had run.

Like the deadly “to be” verbs, the “had” of the pluperfect is vilified. Some people will tell you to eliminate every last one of them.

The thing is, they do serve a purpose, that of indicating that the events you write about using that verb form occurred in the past. This is especially important if you write in the past tense to begin with.

The solution? Contract those pluperfect hads.

I’d run.

It makes the “had” fade into the background. It sounds more natural when read silently in the head, too.

The same thing applies to the conditional verb forms.

Thus, “I would run” becomes “I’d run,” and “I would have run” becomes “I’d have run.”

People speak in contractions. It’s how we roll.

Basically, you squish more zero words out of your sentences.

What it comes down to

  • If you stick to a simple sentence structure where the subject comes first and is closely followed by its verb, you’ll be in good shape.
  • Avoid progressive verb forms (“to be” plus –ing).
  • Delete zero words.
  • Do or do not. There is no try (begin, or start).
  • Contract what makes sense to contract.

When editing, if you read your text out loud, you’ll be able to hear all of the above, potentially pacifying problems.

I really enjoyed writing this post. If you have any questions you’d like answered, please let me know. I’ll be happy to answer in post form 🙂

Have a good “end” everybody. Most of the weekend has already passed 😦

See you on Tipsday!

Muse-inks

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4 thoughts on “Passive voice avoidance strategies

  1. I came across this as I hit a button, and up you popped. Now I’m a regular follower or subscriber, but have been pretty invisible for the past year. First good piece, nicely said. I just finished a gig over the holidays to privately tutor 3 young people from Mexico City, and we were on grammar, that throat-slitting word normally packed under someone’s bed. Thanks for the info; I’m in giant transition, recently widowed, moving, accumulating a plethora of other titles which suggest a path towards Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Total best wishes and appreciation.

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    • Thanks! I’m glad that this post was helpful. I’m a total word nerd and I love this stuff 🙂 So many other people have written about it, I really didn’t think I had anything to add. Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong.
      I hope the Wild Ride is more amusement park fun than crazy-making chaos.
      Break a pencil.

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    • okay; I’m coming back slowly. Bill died Nov 19; he was just 80; great guy, great marriage; I’m moving to more economic, but lovely new place; long-time friend’s home. I’m teaching writing still, and let’s see, last adventure besides horrible chest cold which filled in as audio noise for film of my life: My old sought-after Toyota Corolla – 1998, 67,000 miles, very good condition, burned on whole hole side due to Landlords boat of a Cadillac bursting into flames. Stay tuned; have a zippy red rental, half my social security gone, but doors aways open. Have to relearn WordPress; it’s changed so, and add to list FB.

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