Passive Voice: Show, Don’t Tell

Okay, I admit it.  English Grammar is not my strong point. For me, seventh grade – ‘The Grammar Year’ – was over fifty years ago!  I didn’t do very well in English that year!

Grammar is why modern word processors are great.  You see all your mistakes – in real-time.  I don’t know about other word processors, but Microsoft Word™ seems to have a ‘Passive Voice’ fetish.

If I had to rate the grammatical errors in my writing, ‘Passive Voice’ would be at or close to the top of the list. When I’m typing, I see the offending words appear on the screen, with a ‘green underline’ (Word’s way of telling you that you’ve made a mistake).

Oh boy!  What did I do wrong this time? 

So, I right-click on the underlined words, and there it is … again!

“Passive Voice (consider revising)”

For the next few moments, I experiment with different options until the ‘green underline’ goes away, but sometimes, I WANT the ‘Passive Voice,’ … or at least I think I do.  The paragraph works better with the passive sentence structure … but Word says it’s wrong.  Okay, I’m confused … and frustrated.

So, I decided that since I have this ongoing difficulty with ‘Passive Voice,’ maybe now is the time to research it.  Perhaps, with a little education, I can teach myself to not do it any more (and save myself revision time).
.For authors, the ‘Active Voice’ sentences often do a better job of ‘show, don’t tell,’ but not always. This chart illustrates the problem.  The same words, written in different ways, can have entirely different meanings.

Wikipedia describes Passive Voice as “… a grammatical construction (a “voice”) in which the subject of a sentence or clause denotes the recipient of the action rather than the performer (the agent). The English passive voice is formed with an auxiliary verb (usually, but not always: be, was, get, are, or has, among others) plus a participle (usually the past participle) of a transitive verb.” 

Hey, that’s fine if you have a degree in English and you remember what ‘auxiliary verbs,’ ‘participles,’ ‘past participles,’and ‘transitive verbs’ are! 

Let’s try this another way, with examples.

From the chart above: “The cake is being baked by Mike” is in the Passive Voice sentence. The subject is the CAKE and it’s affected by the ‘being baked’ action of the verb.  The Active Voice sentence is: “Mike is baking a cake” in which the subject signifies the agent, or doer, Mike.  So passive = the cake, and active = Mike.

Another way of saying this is that Passive Voice is used when the focus is on the action. Who or what is performing the action isn’t important, or even known.  Example: “My house was painted last week.”  The Active Voice indicates, in this case, who or what did the painting.  “John painted my house last week.”  “ABC Contracting painted my house last week.”  Here, it’s passive = painted, and active = John or ABC Contracting.

Other examples:

  • Active: “I fixed the leaky faucet on the sink.”  (To say what the subject [I] did)
  • Passive: “The leaky faucet is being fixed.”  (To say what happens to things [the faucet] or people, or, to say what is done to them)
  • Passive: “The faucet was fixed by XYZ Plumbing yesterday.”  (The action [the faucet being fixed] is more important than who did it)
  • Passive: “The faucets were made in Texas.”  (When we don’t know who [made the faucets] did the action)

English, with it’s multi-lingual components, is a difficult language, even for native speakers/writers!  However, the bottom line is that passive sentences are not necessarily WRONG, but a sentence analysis is needed.  What was your intent for the sentence? What did you want to say? Was it about the action, or the person/thing? Word the sentence according to your intent, and don’t let the ‘green underline’ mess with your head!  (Whew! What a relief!)

There are many more rules about Active and Passive Voices that apply to more complex sentence structures.

  • Would you like to know more about the Active and Passive Voices? 

Happy Writing!


PS:  Please take a few minutes to read the Wedding Chapter from my soon-to-be-published book (2012) ‘Janelle’s Time.’  You’ll meet Richard and Janelle Grayson, the newlyweds, AND, meet Duke Logan Conor (he crashes the wedding) from my upcoming book, ‘Logan’s Time.’

Posted on November 7, 2011, in Active Voice, author, England, English Grammar, how to, Janelle, Janelle's Time, Logan, Logan's Time, NaNoWriMo, New Hampshire, Passive Voice, research, Richard, Scotland, time, Word, writer, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Ditto. I’m constantly looking at my sentences to make sure they’re active. Since I tend to write in first person present, passive sentences look even worse. Thanks for the reminder lesson!

    • Hi Kim,
      Nice to see you again.
      ‘Word’ forces me to look at the sentences. Because I try to get rid of all the ‘green underlines,’ I have to look at everything. It was really messing with my head to keep doing the passive voice as often as I was. Since writing the post, two things have happened. First, I’m not doing the passive voice so much, and second, I’m not thinking conspiracy when it comes to the ‘green underlines.’ Now, instead of thinking I ‘screwed up,’ I just check the sentence. If passive is what I want, then that’s how it stays, ‘green underline’ not withstanding. I’m not letting the ‘green underlines’ get to me any more! LOL
      Have a great day!

%d bloggers like this: