Actively voicing the passive

Aargh. Came back from a weekend away to find my laptop has no power – I suspect something drastic happened to the insides, as just before everything went black, it went very, very hot…

I am now an anomaly. A writer with no computer. And being a writer, I have no money to buy a new one. Later on today, I shall track down the dealer for the brand, and find out just what it is going to cost to resurrect a laptop so old that the keys have had all the markings worn off them.

I am now sharing my husband’s laptop. Expect to hear about a divorce in the offing any time soon.

Anyway, that was why the grammar thingy is a Monday thingy instead of a Sunday one.

Here it is: Using the Passive Voice

‘Don’t use the passive voice!’ screams the advice. You see it again and again on the ‘How to write…’ pages. I was therefore interested to discover than at least one writer didn’t even know what it was, and proceeded to give advice on how not to overuse the past perfect tense. (e.g. He had been a troll before the princess kissed him and he’d become a handsome prince.)

The passive voice is not a tense at all, but a state where an action is performed by something to something else, and the thing on the receiving end of the action is the subject of your main verb. Make sense? Probably not.

Look at these two examples:

The prince was hit by the club wielded by the lime green troll.
The lime green troll hit the prince with his club.

They both say the same thing, but the first sentence is passive and the second is active voice. The passive voice always has the idea of something being done BY x TOy, where y is the subject of your verb, in this case the prince.

The word ‘by’ might not even be included.
The corpse was brought inside is also passive, even though nothing is said about who did the deed of bringing the body.

The passive voice can also be in the present tense: The flowers in the church are arranged every day by the nuns. Or past perfect: The flowers had been arranged by the nuns… or future: The flowers will be arranged by

So what is wrong with the passive voice? Well, nothing at all, really. It’s perfectly good grammar and sometimes it is an invaluable way of expressing what you want to say. The corpse was brought inside is exactly right for describing an act when you don’t want to deal with who is involved.

In your story, who is carrying the corpse may be totally irrelevant. They are not characters you are dealing with in your tale and they may never appear again – so why bother with them? Secondly, the carrying of the corpse may not be an action that you particularly want to dramatise. It is more descriptive. So you don’t need the active voice. Your prose is not going to be improved by saying The passers-by carried the corpse inside.

With the troll though…
This is an action scene, and the passive voice is to be avoided. It makes your action seem flat. The lime green troll hit the prince has much more, er, impact.

A handy way to check for passives in your prose is to use that “find” function under the “edit’ menu. Ask to find all instances of the word “was” or “were”. Now obviously it is going to turn up a lot of non-passive uses, such as:
The chickens were sick.
The weather was foul.
The pink elephants were running down the sidewalk.
And that’s a good thing because you can check at the same time if you are over-using a rather weak verb (the verb to be) instead of a verb with more impact (the chickens sickened), or a continuous tense (was running) when a simple past tense (ran) would be better.

The continuous tense (is fightingwas fighting etc) is rather like the passive voice – it lacks impact and is best used for description or where you really want to give emphasis to the continuous nature of the event. e.g. While I was camping at the waterfall in Actagamama, I caught dengue fever.

Er, wait a minute. I have to go fight with my husband about whether he can take the laptop to work today…

Originally posted in Glenda’s blog on Monday, 31 July 2006 (5 Comments).


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