The Passive Voice and “To Be”

"Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple."
    - Raymond Carver, "Neighbors," opening sentence.

The passive voice seems to be a common sticking point for new writers. Is there a specific reason for this? Why would the passive voice be any harder to grasp than any other straightforward grammatical rule?

Part of the answer, as revealed by my infrequent wanderings through authors’ forums, turns out to be in the name. The word “passive” is connotative of several different, though related, problems in writing, and the people both receiving and giving advice often confuse one usage for another.

To begin with, let’s start with how to spot the textbook definition of the passive voice. This is what a professional editor means when they tell you something is “passive”:

The passive voice is being used when an auxiliary verb (usually some form of “to be”) is followed by the past participle of another verb (for most verbs, the past participle is the form that ends in -ed).

Note that this definition has been simplified somewhat (sometimes the auxiliary verb is not “to be,” as in “Tony got whacked”). But for the most part, this rule makes it easy to spot the passive voice in your work. Just look for some form of “to be” (was, were, been, etc.) followed by a past participle, and you know where to focus your attention.

This leads into another question: why is the passive voice so bad? Well, at least part of the answer is probably “because someone decided it is.” Meaning, editors have been so diligent in wiping out the passive voice from published writing, that we as readers are not used to seeing it. Therefore, any usage of the passive voice comes across as novel or strange, and anything strange is to be avoided, as it calls attention to the grammar and away from the content of the sentence. This theory helps explain why the passive voice remains a popular construction in other languages, such as Japanese.

But why did editors start picking on the passive voice in the first place? A common answer is that the passive voice “hides” the subject of the sentence by focusing attention on the object (the receiver of the action rather than the doer). For example, one could write:

A copy of “The Elements of Style” was thrown at Mary’s head.

But this leaves us no clue as to who threw the book, thus hiding some vital information from the reader. We could add the subject to the sentence with the preposition “by”:

A copy of “The Elements of Style” was thrown at Mary’s head by John.

The problem now is that John is languishing away at the end of the sentence. In English, we’re used to seeing sentences in subject-verb-object order; we want to know the subject right away, so that we can have a clear framework in our minds to imagine the scene from the subject’s point of view. By sequestering John to the area near the period, we’re confusing the poor reader’s feeble mind and sending them spiraling into an abyss of eternal torment (at least from your editor’s point of view).

There’s another issue with the passive voice as well, and it has to do with that pesky verb “to be.” When I started writing fiction, I was unaware that there is actually a movement of sorts called E-Prime, the aim of which is to eliminate all usages of “to be” from the English language. Surprised? Why, you may ask, would someone want to eliminate words like “is” and “be,” which almost every English-speaker uses every day?

E-Prime relates to the issue I touched on above, the sometimes varying usage of “passive” in relation to writing critiques. As it turns out, “to be” is not nearly as useful as most people think it is. The reason is that for any usage of “to be,” we can substitute a verb that describes the subject’s action or feelings directly:

John was sitting in the chair.

John sat in the chair.

The second sentence not only has one less word (which is good), it also sounds more dynamic. In the first, “sitting” is a participle (a verb used as an adjective), and it conveys the impression that sitting is some inveterate quality of John’s. In the second version, John isn’t just some loafer, wasting his life in some God-forsaken nasty old chair; he’s a man of action, he sat in that chair, and he’s not taking any of your crap, dammit.

Another problem: when you use “was” or “were” in a sentence like this, you “use up” a participle that could be better applied elsewhere. Consider:

My pet otyugh was lying on the couch, purring and writhing its tentacles.

vs.

My pet otyugh lay on the couch, purring and writhing its tentacles.

Which of these sounds more natural? Because the sentence is already somewhat overloaded with participles (“purring” and “writhing”), there’s no reason to unnecessarily insert another repetitious “-ing” syllable into the mix.

In the context of a single sentence, the difference is small, but small differences can add up. In the first draft of my story A Grave in cloudSpace, I had all the elements I wanted in place: the setting, the characters and the plot. But there was something missing; the story didn’t have the “edge” it needed to work as cyber-horror. When I took it for workshopping, a very helpful author pointed something out: I had used “to be” verbs all over the place, simply because I hadn’t thought one way or another about whether or not they were a good idea. The cumulative effect, over the course of many paragraphs, was to rob the story of its urgency and make crucial action scenes feel sluggish.

Does this mean we should try to eliminate all usages of “to be” from our fiction? Well, just look at the Carver quote at the top of this article for the answer (that quote is also a great way to introduce a discussion on why showing vs. telling is not as black and white as some people think, but that’s another blog post). “To be” verbs are a tool, an arrow in your quiver that can be deployed when it’s useful to do so. For example, let’s go back to A Grave in cloudSpace. After workshopping, I went through and eliminated most usages of “to be” from the text. But I also purposely left a few in, like so:

Albert jumped slightly when he came to a halt in his easy chair. Damn flashing effect. He was sitting in the center of his living area, surrounded by walls rendered in flat pastel shades.

In the story, Albert had closed his eyes and “flashed” (teleported) to another location. By wording the sentence as “He was sitting in the center of his living area”, I wanted to convey a sense that the sitting happened to him in the past, and he only discovered it upon opening his eyes.

Another example, also dealing with flashing:

The process repeated five more times, and then he was staring down at the entirety of the Mandelbulb: a knobby, oblong shape floating in black space. Then, it too shrank into the simulated distance as he was flashed back into his apartment.

Here, I purposefully left in a true usage of the passive voice (“was flashed”), because I wanted to show that flashing is something that happens to Albert, while still keeping Albert as the focus of our attention. However, if I had been submitting this story for publication, rather than self-publishing it, I might have considered rewording this sentence. Some (but not all) editors have a strong distaste for any usage of the passive voice, so it’s probably not worth annoying them, despite any rationalizations you may have for why you want to include it.

What can we take away from all of this? Every writer has their own style, and no guideline is universally correct. For me personally, I now take care to avoid “to be” verbs most of the time, although I find them useful in some situations where I want to provoke a feeling of “slowing down,” giving the reader a break from the action and letting them unwind their imagination. But in fast action sequences or tense scenes, it’s better to remove all references to “to be” entirely, and focus on short, subject-verb-object style sentences.

It’s also good to keep in mind that putting the subject at the beginning of the sentence followed immediately by a strong verb is a great way to convey forward momentum, and anything comes between the subject and the starting position will lessen this effect. For example, none of the following use the passive voice:

In less than a second she rose to her feet, her fists raised.

Rolling away from the flames, Steve coughed the particles of soot from his lungs.

Suddenly, hundred-foot tall spikes erupted from the ground like zits on prom night.

But none of them put the subject at the beginning of the sentence, and they are thus less likely to convey a sense of urgency, despite the well-meaning author’s attempts to describe fast action taking place. This is yet another example of what people on authors’ forums can mean when they describe something as “passive”!

Do you have any more thoughts on this subject? Do you think I’m a complete idiot? Leave a comment below and let me know. Hopefully we can help to lead each other down the path of being better writers…err, I mean, the path of writing better.

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2 thoughts on “The Passive Voice and “To Be”

  1. The problem with eliminating the passive voice altogether is that sometimes you really don’t want to identify the agent of an action (who is doing it) for perfectly good reasons. Also, the auxiliary verb can convey a very particular tense (“He was sitting when it happened” conveys the time relation between the actions.) On the other hand, I see sentences all the time that are overly clogged and clunky due to the passive voice.

  2. The “passive” voice is not always so passive:

    Lenin: What Must Be Done
    Brooklyn Dodger: We wuz robbed

    Perhaps it should be called the indirect voice.

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