|Passive is boring|
Use the active voice...we hear it all the time, but what exactly does it mean? And how do you look for it to fix it?
I used to be one of those folks who wrongly equated passive voice with all forms of the "to be" verb, and I'm guessing I'm not the only one. Because quite often, a to be verb is at the heart of a troublesome sentence. But a to be verb doesn't always signal passive writing.
So first, let's look at exactly what passive voice means.
Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence gets all the action instead of the subject doing the acting.
Bob was bitten by a zombie.This is a passive voice sentence. Bob is your subject here, but Bob doesn't do anything (except maybe stand there like an idiot) and the zombie bites him, thus acting upon him.
In active voice, you'd flip it so that the action (the biting) is done by the subject. Sometimes that requires changing the subject of the sentence.
The zombie bit Bob.If you want to keep Bob as the main focus, you'd have to change it so that the action is something Bob can do, thus making him the subject of the sentence again.
The zombie bit him. Bob screamed. (Note in this case, the to be verb is now gone)Bob is indeed the subject here, and he is indeed the one doing the acting. Bob is running. But a funny thing happens when you use the -ing form of a verb. It often gives it a passive sound that triggers all our passive voice flags. Even though this sentence is an active sentence, most people would say change it to this:
But what happens if it isn't so clear cut?
Bob was running from the zombies.
Bob ran from the zombies.This uses a stronger verb, and it eliminates the to be and the gerund. In most cases, this is the right thing to do. But what happens when you want to show something in the middle of the action?
Bob was running from the zombies when a car hit him.Though all your passive flags will say this is a passive sentence, it's actually active (although it is told). Bob (the subject) was running (the verb). You can't say "Bob ran from the zombies when the car hit him" because that changes the meaning of the sentence. The car hits Bob in the middle of him running from the zombies. He is actively engaged in the act when something else happens. In these instances, it's fine to use the to be verb, even if it feels passive to you. (Of course, if it really bugs you, then just rewrite it until you're happy. Just don't feel you have to to eliminate it for passive voice because there is no passive voice here)
Okay, so how to find and get rid of these pesky passive sentences. The easiest thing to do is to look for the to be verbs. For those that haven't been in an English class in a while, they are:
Is, am are, was, were, has, have, had. Being, been, and be are all pretty good red flags for passive voice.
I like to pick each one and do a find. Then I look at each sentence and check to make sure my subject is indeed acting and not being acted upon. If that passes muster, then I look to see if there's a stronger way to write the sentence to eliminate the to be verb. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't. If the sentence is as strong as it can be, I move on to the next. Beyond that, I just trust my ear to pick up on sentences where the subjected is being acted upon and not acting.
And of course, there are going to be times when the passive voice is exactly the right thing for the sentence. It might be more appropriate for the situation.
Like so many things in writing, it doesn't matter what you do, as long as what you're doing is exactly right for what you're trying to say.