PASSIVE VERBS AND ACTIVE IMAGINATIONS
“Avoid passive verbs” is one of those caveats every writer has heard many times, in just about every “how to write” book, article, and lesson plan on Earth. It’s about as common as “show, don’t tell.” Yet many people remain confused about what this actually means.
A passive verb means that some version of “TO BE” has been appended to the sentence’s main verb. Such as
- The grass was mowed.
- The coffee is brewed.
To make the first two active, you have to change the subject:
- Joe mowed the grass.
- Julia brews the coffee.
“Grass” and “coffee” are now the objects. In the first sentences, they were in the nominative case–in other words, they functioned as the subjects. There’s nothing technically wrong with any of these, as long as the writer knows why he or she has chosen a particular subject. For example, maybe it doesn’t matter who did the mowing or the brewing.
Check out these sentences:
- That night, Inspector Eejit was murdered.
- That night, an unknown criminal murdered Inspector Eejit.
Only the first is passive, and there is nothing wrong with that sentence…or with the second one either, depending on context. Contrary to some people’s beliefs, a passive sentence is not grammatically incorrect. It simply shifts the focus of the sentence from the SUBJECT to the OBJECT–from the DOER to the DONE-TO, so to speak. Notice that the first sentence makes us visualize Eejit, and the second makes us visualize the criminal (in a shadowed silhouette, perhaps, since we don’t know the identity–that’s the point).
Sometimes passives are awkward:
- The vase was looked at.
Sometimes they’re used to obscure the doer’s identity on purpose:
- Mistakes have been made.
Either can be strengthened by a simple reversal of subject and object and dropping the “was” (generally a good idea anyway):
- A hundred experts looked at the vase. No one could determine its value.
- The company CEO made mistakes. Hopefully, the new consultant can repair the damage.
In fiction, passives are discouraged because they slow down the action. Yet they are not incorrect, and sometimes, if used sparingly and carefully, they work fine. The trick is to be able to identify them and understand that the reader’s attention will shift according to what the subject of the sentence is.