Sunday, April 3, 2011

Just what is a passive sentence?

Aside from “don’t use adverbs.” the biggest advice it seems that young writers are given is “don’t use the passive voice.” The problem is that, unlike adverbs, the passive voice can be a bit fuzzy.

The basic definition is to have the verb in front of the subject. These forms are easy to see and identify such as the example below.

1) The dishes were washed by John.

In that example, John is obviously the subject, washed is the verb, and the dishes are the direct object. But there are other types of passive construction that can be more difficult to spot. Take the example below.

2) I was punched by a bully.

Here, the noun ‘I’ is the first word of the sentence, but if you look carefully, it’s not the subject. ‘a bully’ is the subject. Additionally, the subject can even be implied, making it far more difficult to identify.

3) I was punched in the nose.

Yes, this is passive because of the implied subject. ‘I’ does not do the action of punching, and that is why it can’t be the subject and thus it becomes passive. (Note, the subject could be ‘by somebody’ and it would come right after the verb, punched.)

Now this is where things can get really fuzzy. You can have a subject that sorta does some of the action in combination with another subject that would still be passive, but it’s a little more vague.

4) Alex got elected to county examiner.

Here, Alex does some of the action, and he is first. But the other subject would be ‘by the people’ and that would come after elected. Here, Alex is more involved, but there is still a subject after the verb. This is called a ‘reflexive passive’.

The next example I have seen is generally regarded as a ‘pseudo-passive’ because we are about to cross the line where the noun before the verb is more active than before, but there is still another entity doing action.

5) My family had our apartment checked for bugs.

The family does not check for bugs, but they actively caused the checking of the bugs by having somebody else do it. This is called a ‘causative passive.’ And this become more and more pseudo the more active the subject becomes such as the example below.

6) My family got somebody in to check for bugs.

Some people might even debate whether that is even passive at all, but we could all agree that this is very close to the line.

Now that we’ve established what is and isn’t really passive, what about sentences that have ‘was’ in them? I’ve seen a lot of people in critique groups call sentences that had the word ‘was’ in them passive for no other reason than the word was there. But is it?

Probably not.

“I was walking” is not passive. It is a tense called ‘past progressive.’ Now if somebody keeps using that tense, there might be something else going on in their writing, but it does not mean it is passive.

Hopefully that cleared things up for a lot of people, and hopefully I got the grammar all right.

Keep writing!


John Wiswell April 8, 2011 at 9:18 AM  

The point is to make fiction as active as possible. You write "I walked" instead of "I was walking" wherever applicable. "I was walking" is more removed - you don't use it unless you want the removal for context or tone, as in, "I was out walking when I saw the body."

M. Tate April 8, 2011 at 10:06 AM  


"I was walking" again is not passive. It is past perfect. I agree that you should not use it, and instead should use "I walked" in most occasions, because like passive, past perfect has it place, but that place is very limited.

It exists to differentiate two items that happen at different times. So "I was out walking when I saw the body." is correct because you have to find a way to show that you were first walking, and then saw the body. It is a perfect example of when to use past perfect. Pun intended.

I'm thinking of making a past perfect post at some point as well, but thanks for the comment!

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