Do You Mean Passive or Just Weak?

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A great deal of nonsense is written about “Passive Voice,” especially on sites targeted to writers.

Here’s a typically misleading bit of writing instruction under the heading “How to Make Passive Writing Active”:

Take the sentence “The inn was noisy.” This is a fine sentence. It communicates what’s going on in the room. But it’s passive. We can make it stronger.  To do this, we ask who or what made the inn noisy?  Maybe the patrons, maybe just a few drunk old men at the bar. But saying, “A few drunk old men at the bar made the inn noisy,” gives you a lot more information than “The room was noisy.”

If this writing coach is labeling “The inn was noisy” as passive because of the verb was, then the second sentence is no improvement. Both was and made are unexceptional verbs that link their subjects to the adjective noisy. Grammatically speaking, both sentences are in Active Voice.

The problem here, as in similar advice to writers, is using the word passive as the opposite of strong: “But it’s passive. We can make it stronger.”

Voice is the grammatical term for the form of the verb that shows whether the person or thing denoted by the subject does the action or receives the action of the verb:

Sammy struck the ball out of the park. (active voice)
Sammy is running around the bases. (active voice)
The ball was struck out of the park. (passive voice)

I don’t know if the confusion about passive voice began with Strunk and White, but misinformation in the over-venerated Elements of Style has done much to spread and reinforce it. (For details, see Taking Another Look at Strunk and White.)

Depending upon the author’s purpose, passive voice can be a valid stylistic choice. That being said, writing can be tightened and enlivened by ridding it of unnecessary linking verbs and by replacing continuous (progressive) tenses with simple tenses.

One way to dispel the confusion over the grammatical meaning of passive might be to find other adjectives to describe weak, unimaginative verb choices. Here are a few suggestions:


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14 thoughts on “Do You Mean Passive or Just Weak?”

  1. Maeve, you are so right about this! Please go ahead and do use the word “nonsense” when it is applicable**
    “A great deal of nonsense is written about ‘Passive Voice’, especially on sites targeted to writers.”

    So many people believe that the word “nonsense” is some kind of a dirty word. When it comes to some kind of foul expression, they will go as far as to say, “It was used by the ancient Hittites, Parthians, and Scythians, so it cannot be nonsense.” I don’t believe in that kind of cultural relativism.

  2. I agree with the overall rule of thumb that the active voice is preferable to the passive voice for the clear, concise, and deliberate presentation of action and information; however, in the right hands, the passive voice can be a very, very powerful tool, e.g., “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York; . . . .”

  3. I also had a case in which I encouraged someone to use “action verbs” in his writing whenever he could, instead of the other kind. That poor fellow immediately jumped to the conclusion that my use of “action verbs” was the same as “the active voice”.
    (I had been encouraged by English teachers to us action verbs to make the writing lively.”)
    No, this is the truth: Action verbs are ones like these {act, buy, cut, detonate, eat, forsake, go, hug, intercede, jump**, kick, kiss, look, listen, measure, move, operate, plead, pull, quaff, push, roll, seek, shake, take, touch, use, vote, write, X-ray, yank, zoom}.

    The following verbs are usually used in the active voice, but they are not action verbs because they refer to states of being, believing, getting in a passive way, etc.:
    to be, to have, to bear (as in bearing a load), dwell, endure, float, hear, inhabit, lie (to recline, and its past tense is “lay”), need, occupy, possess, receive, see, sit, smell, stand, wish.
    In the present tense, “to lay” is an action verb, and so is “to put”.

    **As in a famous set of American books for teaching first graders to read: “See Spot jump. Jump, Spot, jump!”
    I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the series of reading books about Dick, Jane, Sally, and their dog Spot. I think that the first one was named FUN WITH DICK AND JANE.

    Dr. Seuss used lots of action verbs in his books, such as in
    “I do not like green eggs and ham.
    I do not like them, Sam I Am.
    Would you eat them in a box?
    Would you eat them with a fox?…
    I would not eat them here or there.
    I would not eat them anywhere.
    I would not eat green eggs and ham.
    I do not like them, Sam I Am…
    I do not eat green eggs and ham.
    I do not like them, Sam-I-am…
    Try them! Try them! Try them and you may.
    Try them and you may, I say.”
    Dr. Seuss’s books are great for teaching children about verbs.
    In Southern Califonia, I even saw one of his books translated into Spanish and for sale. I do not know much Spanish, but I do know that
    HUEVOS VERDE E JAMON means “Green Eggs and Ham”.
    Also, the name of the hero of the book was chanced to “Juan Ramon” because “Ramon” rhymes with “jamon”. So, all of the rhyming patterns were preserved in Spanish.

  4. Interesting that it is not HUEVOS VERDE Y JAMON, since jamon does not begin with an EE sound. I also think it would be HUEVOS VERDES. It seems like it would be extremelyhard to translate Dr Seuss while maintaining the word-play and poetic quality. Pretty amazing.

  5. I have seen and heard the same faulty advice.

    Passive = the object of the main verb is the grammatical subject
    Active = the subject does the action described by the main verb

    Passive voice is but one form of weak writing.

    Using the passive voice weakens writing, but using the active voice strengthens it.

    John mowed the grass. = active, John did the action. Grass is the object.
    The grass was mowed by John. = passive, grass didn’t do the action but was acted upon.

  6. Nana: Yes, all the actual published translations seem to be just that. Con, not Y or E. Wouldn’t you still say “y jamon” if that were what you were trying to say? But El Gato Con Sombrero makes my point that meaningfully translating such stuff is really difficult if not impossible.

  7. Thank you for massaging my neurons. You’ve added more light to my understanding of the passive voice. I also enjoyed your list of ‘weak’ words. Very enlightening. Thank you,again .

  8. When I do critiques, I use the word “static” instead of “passive”. To-be verbs are inherently static — even “he was running” is effectively a static condition — it’s a snapshot of an action at a moment in time.

    Sometimes you want that, sometimes you don’t.

  9. @ Jon
    Static and passive are different. State of being verbs, and their associated static sentences, are as you describe-a snapshot. Passive sentences are very different. Something is happening. The problem with passive sentences, however, is that the grammatical subject is not doing the action. To be verbs can be used in both cases (as in this passive sentence). Additionally, other verbs besides to be verbs can form static sentences.

    She felt great. = static, not a to be verb

  10. Thanks, Maeve. Many people don’t understand that both passive and active voices are techniques with valid applications. Though they tried, I was never brainwashed by those who told me never to use the passive voice. I believe that using the active voice 100% of the time results in poor writing.

    The more comical idea from Strunk and White is the importance of omitting needless words. This is because we have been taught to use needless words since about third grade—it’s called good writing! Advanced writing includes a whole lot of needless words, but critics will invariably focus on a few, thinking they’re making a point. I would love to see a journal article written in Dick and Jane style.

  11. I find that adding “…by zombies” is usually a good identifier of the passive voice.

    Sammy struck the ball out of the park by zombies. (active voice)
    Sammy is running around the bases by zombies. (active voice)
    The ball was struck out of the park by zombies. (passive voice)

    The first two sentences make no sense and thus, are active.

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