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PASSIVE AGRESSIONBy member Donnamarie Thiel-Kline
"Good storyline, but watch the passives." "Too much passive voice." "Use more active sentences instead of passive."
Do these sound familiar? They should: Use of passive voice is one of the most frequent criticisms on the workshop. But are we as writers really so... passive? Before you dish out some passive aggression in your next review, put your editing skills to the test!
Rewrite these sentences, changing passive to active as necessary:
A) "The Red Pony" was written by John Steinbeck in 1945.So, how many of these sentences did you rewrite? If you edited more than Sentences A, E, and I, put down that red pen and let's review.
B) Kukla, Fran, and Ollie were attending the class.
C) The explosion could be heard from miles away.
D) Magda was a no-nonsense sort of woman.
E) The award is being presented by Coach Thomas.
F) Johnny's grades were falling rapidly.
G) The professor was murdered late last night.
H) The moon is bright tonight.
I) Several passive constructions were flagged by the editor.
J) Kylie is acting silly.
In an active sentence, the subject carries out the action while the object receives or describes it: Mary throws the ball. A passive construction turns this right around, so that the object performs the action and the subject receives it: The ball is thrown by Mary. Passives are formed by combining a form of "to be" with the main verb's past participle.
What about Sentences B, F, and J? They have "to be" with a participle, so they must be passive, right? Wrong! Many people will misidentify these as passives, but they are really examples of progressive tenses. Look carefully. In all three sentences, the subject is the one carrying out the action. This is easier to see in the simple past or present tense: Kukla, Fran, and Ollie attended; grades fell; Kylie acts. Progressives indicate action that is continuing or was interrupted. Compare "I went to the store" with "I was going to the store." "I went to the store" sounds finished, while "I was going to the store" leaves you wondering if I ever got there.
We have forms of the verb "to be" in Sentences D and H, too. Are they passive? No again! These sentences illustrate linking verbs. Linking verbs connect a subject and a complement; they are usually forms of "to be" but can also be verbs related to the senses like "to taste," "to look" or "to sound." A complement is a word or phrase that tells us more about the subject's condition: John is tall. Dinner smells delicious.
So if "to be" and participles aren't good ways to identify passives, what is? The surest way is to find the sentence's main verb and ask who or what did it. If the answer is "the subject," the sentence is active, no matter how it looks. But even if the sentence is passive, it's not necessarily wrong.
In Sentence C, the explosion is what was heard, not who heard it. In Sentence G, the professor was the victim, not the murderer. Both sentences are passive--and completely acceptable. Passives are actually preferred when the identity of the actor is unknown or unimportant. Any number of people might have heard the explosion; the professor's murder is still unsolved. A passive can also be used to focus attention more strongly on the recipient of the action than on the actor, usually when the recipient becomes important later. Sentence A ("The Red Pony" was written by John Steinbeck in 1945) is passive, but if the rest of the paragraph is an analysis of the themes in the novel it works as written. If the paragraph goes on with a Steinbeck bibliography, though, it needs to be changed!
By now, you should be a pro at accurately picking out the passives. You won't be misled by progressives or deceived by linking verbs, and your hand won't automatically reach for a red pen every time you see a page full of "is," "was" and "were." Now it's time to get working on those reviews, confident in the knowledge that if you end up writing "Nice plot, but too many passives!" you'll be right!
[This tip has been brought to you by the verb "to be," actively trying to change its passive image.]