Active vs. Passive Voice: Was and Not Was
I wasn’t intending on doing a series on various grammar points, but… People have been bringing up common misunderstandings in the comments, so I’m still here, appreciating all the post ideas. *grin*
Last time, we talked about the past perfect verb tense and how it helps us indicate to readers that a story event happened before the past tense of our novel. In the comments of that post, Kassandra Lamb (a frequent guest poster here) brought up another verb tense that often causes issues:
“Perhaps in some future post, you could clarify more about the past continuous tense. It’s one of my pet peeves that editors and other authors too often assume that “I was eating” is passive voice. No, it indicates an ongoing activity.”
Yay for another great idea for a post! *smile* Especially as I’ve haven’t talked much about passive voice here. Let’s talk about what passive voice is and how to tell when the word was is not a sign of passive voice.
Why Should We Understand Passive Voice?
In school, we might have heard that passive voice is bad or to be avoided. And yes, that advice usually applies to story writing too.
What is passive voice and how can it cause problems in our story? Click To TweetSentences in active voice are, well…more active for readers. They make actions clearer, help with showing our story, and are just plain easier to read.
That said, I won’t go so far as to call passive voice bad. Every aspect of the English language, from adverbs and slang to future tense and passive voice, has its place in our writing-craft toolbox. And sometimes it does make sense to write in passive voice, but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s start with the basics…
What Is Passive Voice?
Basic sentences in the English language are constructed with a subject and a verb:
- She ate.
The next level of complexity is to add an object, a “what” for the verb to act on:
- She ate all the snacks.
Those are examples of active voice because the noun in the subject of the sentence is the one doing the acting with the verb. Who’s doing the eating? She is, and she’s the subject of the sentence, so the sentence is in active voice.
In contrast, passive voice is a sentence structure where the noun doing the acting with the verb is not the subject of the sentence:
- All the snacks were eaten.
Here, the noun phrase in the subject of the sentence is “all the snacks.” Who’s doing the eating? Not the snacks. We know those snacks didn’t eat themselves, as they’re the recipient of the action, not the do-er of the action. So this is an example of passive voice.
What if we gave more details? For example:
- All the snacks were eaten by her.
Here, we now know who’s doing the eating. It’s “her.” But “her” is not the subject of the sentence. It’s still the “snacks,” so even with the extra information, the sentence is still an example of passive voice.
Why Should We Usually Avoid Passive Voice?
With those examples above, we can see several of the problems with passive voice.
Active voice sentences are better at forming a picture for readers. It’s easier for them to show and not tell our story. In contrast, passive voice sentences bury the actor and the acting so they tell what happened rather than show events.
- Active is easier to Show: She ate all the snacks.
- Passive just Tells what happened: The snacks were eaten.
Passive voice sentences are also more wishy-washy (which is why they’re so commonly used by politicians). They don’t point fingers at the do-er of the action. Who ate all those snacks?
Or in the classic political line: Mistakes were made. Who made those mistakes? Hmm?
In addition, as we give more details, passive voice sentences become more convoluted and harder to read compared to active voice:
- Passive Voice: All the snacks in the cupboard were eaten by her in a fit of pandemic anxiety.
- Active Voice: In a fit of pandemic anxiety, she ate all the snacks in the cupboard.
When Might We Want to Use Passive Voice?
As I mentioned earlier, however, sometimes passive voice makes sense. For example:
- We don’t know (or don’t want to reveal) the do-er of the action:
Her jewelry was scattered across the floor, as though her home’s invader had been looking for a specific piece.
- We want to emphasize the recipient of the action, such as when the result of the action is what’s important:
Her car had been stolen.
- The actor is obvious or unimportant:
Her first post-promotion payroll check was signed, official and everything.
Despite leading to convoluted sentences, passive voice is grammatically correct. As long as we have a reason for writing in passive voice, we’re allowed to do so. *smile*
How Can We Identify Passive Voice?
Obviously, we can simply think about whether the subject of the sentence is the one doing the acting. But that’s a pain to do for every sentence. Fortunately, there are a couple of clues we can watch out for to shortcut our editing process.
- Most passive voice sentences include an auxiliary verb along with the main verb (which is in past participle form), such as with the examples above:
- were eaten
- was scattered
- had been stolen
- was signed
- When passive voice sentences identify the actor, they include the word “by,” such as from the example above:
- All the snacks were eaten by her.
How Can We Fix Passive Voice?
What if we don’t want a sentence to be in passive voice? How can we fix it and make it active voice instead?
To make a sentence active voice, we need to identify the do-er of the action and make that actor the subject of the sentence. This is easy if our sentence includes a “by” telling us the actor. Then all we need to do is flip the sentence.
- All the snacks were eaten by her. >>
- She ate all the snacks.
For the other examples above, we could add more details if we wished to identify the actor:
- The burglar had scattered her jewelry across the floor, as though they’d been looking for a specific piece.
- A thief had stolen her car.
- Her boss signed her first post-promotion payroll check, official and everything.
When Is an Auxiliary Verb Not a Clue?
The first clue mentioned above for how we can identify passive voice brings us to the issue Kassandra mentioned with past continuous tense. Yes, most passive voice sentences include an auxiliary verb, such as was, were, had been, etc.
However, that doesn’t mean every instance of those words is automatically passive voice. The Grammar Monster site has a great graphic about auxiliary verbs and their many uses:
As seen in the graphic, only one of the applications of auxiliary verbs falls into the problem of passive voice. So, yes, words like was, were, and had been are often a clue, but not always.
After all, those same words are used in past continuous (or progressive) tense…
Recap: The Default Tenses of Storytelling
As we’ve mentioned in another recent post, the default tense that many writers use for their storytelling is past tense. But that doesn’t mean we use past tense for every element of our story.
Instead, the tense we use changes with the various elements of our story:
- The narrative is written in past tense:
She ignored the knock on the door. In these days of social distancing, she didn’t want to take any chances.
- Dialogue (including direct internal dialogue) is written in present tense:
“I need some chocolate to get me through this day. Stat.”
- Backstory (events that occurred before the story present) is written in past perfect tense:
She had eaten all the snacks in the house already.
In the narrative examples above, I used the simple past tense. That tense is easy; it’s basic.
However, the simple past tense also applies only when when action has already been completed. Think of a one-time action or something that doesn’t continue. But that’s not always the tense we need.
What Is the Past Continuous Tense?
If an action is uncompleted, interrupted, or consistent (such as with a habit), we need to use a continuous (also known as progressive) tense. If we’re writing our story in the past tense, that means ongoing actions in our narrative would use the past continuous tense.
The past continuous tense uses the auxiliary verbs was or were and the main verb would use the form of an -ing ending:
- She was eating all the snacks in the cupboard when a knock sounded at the door. (uncompleted action)
- She was always snacking in the afternoon. (ongoing with a habit)
Or as I mentioned last time, we’d use the past perfect continuous tense for an action that started further back in our story’s past and continued to our story’s present.
The past perfect continuous tense uses the auxiliary verb had been and the main verb would use the form of an -ing ending:
- She had been struggling with a constant sense of hunger ever since the pandemic increased her stress level. (ongoing action that started earlier)
Other Uses of Was
Beyond the past continuous tense, our sentences might include the word was at other times as well and still not be passive voice. For instance, all the forms of the verb be (am, is, are, was, were, being, been, and will be) can act as verbs all on their own:
- She was hungry.
- He was in pain.
- She was a doctor.
These types of sentences aren’t the best examples of active voice, as they don’t use exciting action verbs. Instead, the verbs just sit there, linking the subject to more information about it. So if possible, we should try to reword to show what we want readers to understand:
- Her stomach gurgled with hunger.
- His face contorted into a grimace of pain.
- Coffee spills stained her doctor scrubs.
However, just because the earlier examples don’t use strong action verbs doesn’t mean they’re passive voice. The term passive voice applies only when our sentence construction doesn’t put the do-er of the action in the position of the subject. And regardless of the blah nature of the earlier examples above, when we simply need to describe a condition, using a linking verb might be our best option.
Was Does Not Equal Passive Voice
As Kassandra mentioned in her comment, many people are confused about passive voice. They think any appearance of was or were (or am, is, or are in present tense writing) in the story automatically means passive voice.
(And don’t feel bad if you’ve made this mistake. Even Strunk and White’s Elements of Style has misidentified linking verb sentences for passive voice in their examples.)
How can we find and fix passive voice sentences in our story? Click To TweetHowever, just as the past perfect tense we talked about last time is necessary sometimes—even though it can be distancing—the past continuous tense is necessary sometimes too, even though it uses was/were. If actions are ongoing in a habitual way, or if they’re uncompleted or interrupted (such as with the knock on the door in the example), the continuous tense fits our needs.
Ditto for using linking verbs. While they don’t create the most exciting sentences, sometimes they’re what makes sense for the information we want readers to know.
How Can We Tell When Was Isn’t Passive Voice?
So how can we tell the difference between these various uses of was or other being verbs? How can we know if feedback we receive about passive voice is correct…or just confused on this issue?
For example with was, we can check…
- Is “was” all by itself in the verb phrase?
He was sixteen years old.
- “Was” is acting as a linking verb.
- Is “was” accompanied by an -ing ending verb?
He was studying for his finals.
- “Was” is acting as an auxiliary verb for the past continuous tense.
- Is “was” accompanied by the past participle form of a verb (an -ed ending or an irregular past tense form: eaten, scattered, stolen, signed, etc.)?
The test was proctored by his teacher.
- “Was” is acting as an auxiliary verb for passive voice.
And for a double check, we can ask ourselves whether the subject of the sentence is the actor for the verb. Did the tests proctor themselves? Nope.
So that last example is definitely a passive voice sentence and could be flipped to active voice:
- His teacher proctored the test.
In other words, while was or were can be important words to look for when searching for passive voice, they’re not an end-all-be-all indicator. They don’t automatically mean passive voice, and their appearance in our writing is a clue, not a judgment. *smile*
Have you heard the advice to avoid passive voice before? Did you know how to identify it (correctly)? Or have you been confused about passive voice in the past? Did this post help explain passive voice and how to identify it? Do you have any questions about passive voice or any of these other issues?Pin It
Bless you, Jami! Love this post, of course.
Thank you for the great idea of the post, Kass!
Oh, I’m going to copy over my comment here from our FB conversation, because I touched more on those linking verb sentences, which others might find interesting. 😉
I’m happy to see you mentioned that the use of “was” as a linking verb DOES NOT make a sentence passive voice. I’ve read too many posts by writers trying to explain passive voice who get that wrong. Thanks.
Was (Not Was)? Everybody walk the dinosaur! This was my mental soundtrack for the whole post, thanks 🙂
A great post. Thank you.
Understanding the structure of the English language has never been my strong suit. When I edit, I look for the word was followed by an -ing word. Your post provides a lot more in-depth information and makes it easier for me to understand why I look for was -ings. Thanks!
Thank you for such a clear explanation. I am part of an online critique group, and was corrected by someone when I identified the past continuous as passive. I am now much wiser!
I was recently reading Jane Austin’s Persuasion and came across this terrible sentence from slmeone who is considered a great writer: ‘…the coach was beginning to be listened for.’ (She does use a lot of passive voice.)