Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship---a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.
Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.
- The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
- The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
- The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.
- The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather than the agent doing the action.]
- The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
- Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]
So far, so good.
But here's where problems start cropping up. Some writers (and even some editors) have taken the concept of active subjects to mean that all sentences must have action verbs. Any verb of being, then, gets lumped in with the passive voice. Here are a few sentences with verbs of being.
- Despite everything that happened, the speaker still wasn't late to the conference.
- Her children are all gifted writers, singers, or artists.
- I am certain about this one.
Another form that gets dumped in with passive voice, and isn't, is a helping verb working with a present participle (-ing form of a verb).
- The writer is finishing the last chapter.
- Her friend was posting on Facebook late at night.
- The members of his critique group were giving line edits instead of overall impressions.
Is there a reason to steer clear of these sentences? Perhaps, but for an entirely different reason than for the erroneous accusation that they are passive.
Sentences with ongoing action, which is what this verb construction communicates, are a little harder for readers to visualize. The beginning of a thing, we can picture, but what do we see when the action is ongoing?
In addition, if an entire paragraph or page or scene contains numerous sentences with this construction, the repeated -ing acts like any other repetition: it becomes annoying.
- There were three Facebook friend invitations in her email box.
- Here is your coffee.
- There aren't any more books available.
So here's what we covered:
- Sentences with verbs in passive voice aren't as strong as verbs in active voice. A writer would be wise to rewrite them.
- Sentences with state of being verbs are perfectly fine but shouldn't be overused.
- Sentences with helping verbs and the present participle (-ing) form of a verb, while not passive, nevertheless should be used sparingly, largely because of repetition but also as a means to help readers visualize scenes.
- Finally, sentences with construction similar to there is ... may look passive, but they aren't. The subject comes after the state of being verb, which adds to the impression that there's a passive something going on. But remember, with no action verb in sight, there is no possibility of a passive subject.
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A former English teacher and an aspiring epic fantasy author, Rebecca LuElla Miller has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She has covered high school sports for a Los Angeles area newspaper group, published articles and short stories in several print and online magazines, and placed in the top twenty-five in the 2006 Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest. Most recently she is the author of Power Elements of Story Structure. She currently blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.