Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Passive Voice and The Dreaded "To Be" Verbs

A few months ago, I got into a discussion with one of my fellow group members for the critique group I’m a part of. We spoke of the dreaded…

Passive voice… “to be” verbs. DUN DUN DUN.

Personally (and yes, I mean PERSONALLY, for my own writing and reading) I think using any form of "to be" verbs in anything other than speech is usually useless. USUALLY... not always.

(I should mention, as an aside, "to be" verbs in speech is almost always acceptable because that's generally how we speak naturally. Unless your character is giving a well prepared speech, he or she is bound to use a lot of "to be" verbs.)

For the most part, "to be" verbs are overused. We tend to gloss over them as English speakers, which automatically makes us passive readers, even if the "to be" verb isn't being used in passive voice.

Also, there's almost always a way to avoid them and replace the verb with something stronger and more concrete. "Was" (or "is" or "are" or "were" or any other "to be" verb) indicates a state of being - not an action. For example, "This is a book." This will always be a book. It's a permanent existence until something physically changes it. But "He was running." is far more temporary. His "running state" isn't a permanent "state of being" like the book.

I don't mean you can always avoid "he was running." But there's lots of other ways to avoid it. Use a different verb in general. You don't even need to use the verb. Here's an example:

"Matt turned. The horse was running right at him!"

can turn into...

"Matt turned. The horse dashed at him. Crap! Matt dodged."

Not the best sentence ever written, but this avoids the verb issue completely.

There is almost always a way to avoid "to be" verbs, even in simple description.
For example:

"The bowl was red."

There's two ways to go about this. If it's not significant that the bowl is red you can simply say

"The red bowl."

But if it is significant, (like, if it's red from blood or paint or something) you can change the verb completely.

"The bowl gleamed red and sparkled in the light."

This not only avoids the "was" but it also gives us a much more powerful description and verb in general.

As I said, you can't always avoid "was" or "to be" verbs. But you can a LOT and it usually makes for a better read.

My discussion partner also cited a link to a website that explains “past progressive” voice, which is considered okay for novel writing.

Being a writing Nazi, I tackled that too.

The link cited these examples as past progressive:

"Narrative in past tense.
It was raining. The water was pouring down in sheets and the passersby were getting wetter with every step, despite their umbrellas.
When one action is happening at the time of another particular time.
It was raining at noon.
It was raining during lunch.
When one action is happening at the same time as another.
It was raining while I was out walking."

Almost all of these can be changed to a more active voice and therefore made better.

"It was raining. The water was pouring down in sheets and the passersby were getting wetter with every step, despite their umbrellas."


"Rain fell from the sky. The water dropped in sheets and passersby soaked up every drop, despite their umbrellas."

As you can see, this even makes the whole thing shorter, yet more vivid, and even uses some metaphor to make the writing stronger.

"It was raining at noon.

It was raining during lunch.

When one action is happening at the same time as another.

It was raining while I was out walking."


"It rained at noon"
- Writers rarely need to indicate that "noon" and "raining" happened at the same time. "It rained at noon" and "It was raining at noon" portray, in most cases, the same action.

"It rained all through lunch."
- Again, no need for that passive voice. We still get the sense that "raining" and "lunch" happened all at the same time.

"Rain poured down while I walked that morning."
- We're still seeing some passage of time. We're also seeing "walking" and "raining" happening at the same time. All without those "to be" verbs.

For those “TL;DR” folks… “To be” verbs are almost always avoidable, and make for better literature. The end.

What's your thoughts on Passive Voice? 


  1. My thoughts on passive voice is that is very commonly improperly defined. From a strict grammatical standpoint, passive voice is when you take a noun that could hold an object position in the sentence and situate it as a subject. "The sail was billowed by a stiff wind" instead of "A stiff wind billowed the sail."

    Now, the use of a being verb in a place where a more powerful, precise verb could serve and enhance--that's weak writing. But not passive voice. "The street was dark." is certainly less picturesque than "Darkness shrouded the streets, its heavy pall oppressive and fear-laden." Both sentences are still in active voice, however. In the first sentence "street" is the subject and "was" is the verb. The street is being. Not a very interesting thing for a street to do, but nonetheless, it is still the actor in the sentence. In sentence two, "darkness" is the subject and "shrouded" is the verb. The street is in the act of shrouding, so again, it's active voice.

    The street was shrouded in darkness--that's passive voice, because the darkness is doing the shrouding, but it's not the subject, it's the object of a preposition in that sentence. "Street" is still the subject, and the verb is "was shrouded."

    I agree that writers should avoid passive voice whenever possible. I also agree that being verbs are very often too weak for the job of building prose that stimulates the mind and senses. But passive voice and weak verbs are two entirely different craft issues.

    Sorry for the soap box, but this is a hot button for me, as you have already discovered. :)

    1. Hooray for the soapbox. XD

      I agree with everything you have to say, Becky. Honestly, the only reason I ever did such a post was because of what transpired in that writing group. The person I was arguing with asked me to go over her story and she had a LOT of passive voice and weak writing, so I pointed it out and gave her suggestions.

      She didn't take it well. She started a thread bashing my comments and giving all those examples that I countered up there calling it passive voice. It's the only reason I used those specific examples. Honestly, I really should just call this the "To Be" verb post, since I tackle more of that then the Passive Voice stuff.

      I've been told that the best way to see if something is passive voice is to add "by zombies" at the end of a sentence. If the sentence makes sense still, it's in passive voice, because the "was" and "by" words make it passive (this is from my college linguistics professor that I interacted with during my campaign to get my Master's Degree... and let me just say, I hate linguistics.)

      Basically if you took the sentence "the street was dark" and put "by zombies" you'd get "the street was dark by zombies." Obviously this no longer makes sense. But if you put "the street was shrouded in darkness by zombies" you could, conceivably, make this sentence work. If you put "clouds" instead of "zombies" in that sentence, it makes sense, and is therefore passive. We can correct this by saying "Clouds shrouded the street in darkness" and that makes it active.

      I hope that clarifies things. Thanks for your input. =D


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