I had a professor once who thought (a) passive voice happened any time you have a conjugation of “to be” at work in a sentence; and (b) passive voice must always be avoided (hehe). He was wrong on both counts, and it took me years to overcome the trauma. We’ll start with a rule (whether something is passive or not is a yes or no question, so there’s no problem having a “rule” about that). Then we’ll talk about applying the general idea (not a rule) that passives usually (i.e., sometimes but not always) weaken our writing.
A) The Basic Rule
Passive voice is a simple, but often misunderstood, concept. We’ll start with the simple part. In passive sentences, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action in the sentence. That’s it. You do not need a Spymaster Deluxe Decoder Ring to work your way around this concept. If you can figure out what the subject of a sentence is, you can figure out whether the sentence is passive or active.
If you can’t figure out what the subject is, don’t worry. That’s not rocket surgery, either. The subject of the sentence is, generally, the thing the sentence is about or the thing that does the action. If it’s the thing that does the action, the sentence isn’t going to be passive, so the problem solves itself. We only need to worry when the sentence is about a thing that isn’t the actor. This also applies to clauses, but I am going to just address sentence structure to keep this simple.
We ate pie. We are the subject of the sentence. We did the verb (ate). Yay us. This sentence is not passive.
The pie was eaten. The pie is now the subject of the sentence. The pie didn’t do shit. It just sat there being eaten. Boo pie. This sentence is passive.
So, the basic rule is simple. Look at the verb and ask whether the verb is being done by or to the subject. If it is done by the subject, you’re golden. If it is done to the subject, the sentence is passive. Does the fact that it is passive mean it sucks? Not necessarily. But we’ll deal with that in a bit.
B) Same Rule, Just a Little Less Basic
If all sentences were three or four words long with one noun and one verb, the issue would be closed there. We’d sound like 1950s Hollywood stereotype cave men and Native Americans, but we’d be done worrying about passive voice. Assuming we want our narratives to be slightly more nuanced than “Kate make fire,” we need to take a couple more issues into account.
The pie was eaten by us. Now we have two nouns (well, OK, a noun and a pronoun). Now there’s a noun (us) doing the eating, so the sentence can be active, right? Not quite. The “by us” part is a prepositional phrase (“by” is the preposition). But hang with me here, because if you just learn one more little rule, you’ll have your black belt in passive kicking. Or at least your fourth-degree brown belt (not to be confused with a fifty shades of grey belt, which is a whole other thing).
Whenever a passive sentence has an agent doing the verb, that agent is going to show up in a prepositional phrase. So there will be a preposition (by, from, after, etc.) followed by a noun or pronoun. They aren’t the subject of the sentence, they modify the verb that is doing something to the subject of the sentence.
If you grew up speaking English, you don’t think twice about prepositions. If you are learning English as a second language, you probably think preposition is a four-letter word (or a twenty-one-letter word like “big-fucking-pain-in-my-ass”). From a linguistic point of view, they are amazing little buggers with an amazing history, but today I am focusing on the fact that they are a pain in the ass to identify.
In passive sentences, the prepositional phrases most often used are: by, for, from, after, off, on, and between. That’s not a scientific study of language, by the way, it’s my opinion. Here’s another opinion, about half of the time, the preposition is “by.” So when you see a sentence with a noun, a verb, and a prepositional phrase “by [whatever]” your passive radar should start ringing.
C) Same Rule, The Part My Dickhead Professor Didn’t Get.
If he weren’t the only person with this misconception, I’d assume he just learned half a rule and missed the next day of class. Because a good portion of the English-speaking world (including a few old-school English teachers) labors under the same misconception, it’s worse than that.
The truth is if you find a form of “to be” in a sentence AND it’s followed by a past participle (let’s just call it a past-tense verb for now), you’re going to end up with a passive.
The cake has been [that’s our ‘to be’] eaten [that’s our past participle] by them (or anyone, at that point, because it’s already passive).
So Professor Asshat had half the rule right. Well, half of the first half of the rule, because he was dead wrong about passives being wrong all the time, too. But forms of “to be” (is, are, were, will be, have been, etc.) by themselves do not create passive sentences or clauses. When combined with past participles, they’ve always resulted in passive voice, though (hehe).
D) Same Rule, Keepin’ it Real.
If your eyes rolled back in your head when I started talking about prepositional phrases, roll them back. The grammar part is over, and it’s time to deal with the real-world use.
1) It helps to learn about the past participles and prepositional phrases, but it’s not required. You can identify passives if you are able to identify the subject of the sentence.
2) What’s the sentence about? That’s the subject. In my examples, some sentences have been about pie (“The pie was eaten by us”) and some sentences have been about us (“We ate the pie”). If you can identify the subject, you can identify passive voice.
3) What does the subject do? In many sentences, the subject is also the agent of the action. If the subject is doing something, we don’t need to worry. The subject can’t be the doer of the action and the recipient of the action at the same time. It’ll go blind. (I’m kidding, it’s grammatically impossible). If the subject is doing the action (e.g., “The pie attacked Cleveland”), your sentence will be active.
4) If the subject isn’t doing anything, you probably have a passive sentence. Take a look, is the verb being done to rather than by the subject? If the answer is yes, then your sentence is passive.
5) If all else fails, look for prepositional phrases. Sentences can get complicated. Especially if you write like I do, and half of your first-draft sentences are run-on amalgamations of phrases and punctuation that seem to last for pages. You can still catch most passive sentences that have two nouns (and/or pronouns) if you just look for prepositional phrases that include “by.” Broaden your search to include on, off, from, against, between, and the other prepositions, and you’ll nail that type of passive.
E) What the hell does this have to do with World War Z?
Because — zombies, man!
Among their few contributions to society are the zombies’ uncanny ability to guide us through passive sentences. Want to know whether a sentence without a telltale prepositional phrase is passive? Ask yourself this: Could the zombies have done it?
We ate the pie. (nope, there’s no pie left for the zombies)
The pie was eaten (cue awesome, eerie music) BY ZOMBIES! (yep, passive).
What you’re really doing here is inserting the implied prepositional phrase to show the actor in a sentence that lacks one. This is one of those rules that works better than it should, probably because it’s fun, which keeps editing interesting. Nothing livens your writing up like a good zombie apocalypse. Ironically, nothing shows the need for livening as effectively, either. If you run through a page or two of your manuscript and realize that you could have zombies doing most of the things that happen, there’s a pretty good chance your writing contains too many passives. One zombie every few pages? That just keeps your characters on their toes.
As I’ve said before, there are no rules of writing that shouldn’t be broken for the right reason. More importantly, knowing what the rule is, why it operates the way it does, and why it has been accepted as a “rule” is a prerequisite to breaking those rules effectively. Today I covered the relatively boring part (except for the zombies, because zombies are cool). Next up, we get to the fun part:
Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)