August 30, 2012

To Be or Not to Be, or Why Passive Voice Makes Me CRAZY

So. I bet you've heard about a little niggling problem called passive voice. Simply put, a passive sentence is . . . well, actually, that's my problem right there. Passive voice is generally considered a bad thing in writing because it puts the action at arm's length, thus sucking the life from your MS. Most sources agree on that point, but not everyone agrees about whether or not passive voice should be eradicated in every instance, or what construes a passive sentence in the first place.

Wikipedia has pages and pages of info about passive voice, including lots of examples of when passive voice is an appropriate construction. The Elements of Style by Strunk & White illustrates passive voice in several concise paragraphs, while making it clear that passive voice must be avoided at every opportunity. And then there's Steven King, who wonderful little book On Writing contains some of the best writerly guidance I've ever read--he hates passive voice. He seeks to destroy it at every turn, and recommends that I do so as well.

And yet, I've read an article that claims three of the four passive voice examples used by Strunk&White are not passive constructions, and that the authors actually mangle the guidelines for sentence construction quite thoroughly. And I've certainly dealt with a fair number of critique partners who seem determined to eradicate every form of the verb "be," even though its presence alone does not indicate a passive construction:

A lot of people think all sentences that contain a form of the verb “to be” are in passive voice, but that isn't true. For example, the sentence "I am holding a pen" is in active voice, but it uses the verb “am,” which is a form of “to be.” The passive form of that sentence is "The pen is being held by me."

So. Lots of people are worried about passive voice. Most are convinced it's not the way to go. Some are comfortable spotting it; others are clearly confused about how to identify it at all. And I'm left staring at my MS, wondering if I should chop up my sentences and force them into forms that I'm not entirely sure are warranted. I mean, an obvious passive is easy to shoot down:
The tent was filled with people
People filled the tent
But what about trickier forms of passive voice? Longer sentences with prepositional phrases sprinkled in and questionable subject-verb relationships. I stare at those sentences, fiddle with them, and then go back to what I had before. For me, the answer to those questions will come with beta reader feedback. If and when my critique partners see evil passive voice messing up my story, I'll fight the good fight. Until then, may your verbs be active, and your sentences clear.

As Steven King said (paraphrasing here):
The body should not be carried into the kitchen. It's a body for goodness sakes! It's not doing anything! Tell me John and Suzie carried the body into the kitchen, and I'm interested.


  1. Well said. This was very helpful. I don't tend to worry about passive voice, but that's partly because I never quite got it. The examples you posted are really good. ^_^

    1. Hi Krystal, thanks for reading :) As Steven King also said, when asked how he writes : one word at a time. Here's to taking it as it comes!

  2. Hah! Good examples. Love the body paraphrase of Stephen King. Let's mangle it more.

    The dead body swayed and contorted while it was being carried into the kitchen by John and Suzie.

    EW, do we have a zombie? :D

  3. Great post, Melanie. Good reminders here.

    1. Thanks, Rosi!

      We've had quite a lengthy debate on the topic over at Absolute Write. If any of you want to twist your brains around the idea further, here's the link:


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