Author Topic: Passive voice is not any verb construction that uses is/are/was/were  (Read 12599 times)


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Pasting this in from an old thread because I'm seeing more instances of advice to get rid of passive voice accompanied by cross-outs and revisions of verbs that are not passive voice at all.
[Words in brackets - brown color - are mine added in this current post.]

Pasted in from:
 Re: Query for WE SHALL NOT BE REMOVED [in the forum: World's Worst Queries]
« Reply #10 on: June 18, 2015, 05:21:46 AM »
Agent blogs are some of the worst perpetrators of "getting rid of passive voice" while not knowing the difference between passive voice and progressive (continuous) forms of verbs, which require the use of is/are and was/were.

If you're going to insist on getting rid of passive voice whenever you see it (which is foolish advice compared to advice to use it properly), you should at least know what it is.

     It is not any instance of is/are/was/were. [Passive voice occurs when the subject of the sentence is the recipient -- not the doer -- of the action.]
And you should know how the meaning is changed by changing a verb from progressive to simple past tense (changing "He was slashing his brother's throat when the UPS truck arrived ----> He slashed his brother's throat when the UPS throat arrived).

The second one (slashed, simple past tense) [active voice]means that, at the moment the truck arrived, he suddenly took a knife to his brother's throat.

The first one (was slashing) uses past progressive/continuous tense [also in the active voice] because the act of slashing his brother's throat was already in progress at the moment the truck arrived.

But some agents/editors, ignorant of both passive voice and tense aspects, think they are brilliantly killing two birds with one stone by getting rid of "was" (misidentified as a red flag for passive voice) and an "ing-word" at the same time by changing "was slashing" to "slashed". Oh, and there's a third bird. They think they've made the writing "more immediate."

[ETA:] I also see this "passive voice" confusion a lot on blogs by writers and in critiques on forums. Would like to see more examples on how to use passive voice (correctly identified) effectively and examples of when it is preferable over active voice.
« Last Edit: February 04, 2017, 12:14:23 AM by Munley »

Offline Doggy Teng

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Re: Passive voice is not any verb construction that uses is/are/was/were
« Reply #1 on: February 04, 2017, 10:41:53 AM »
Thanks for posting this, Munley.  I've noticed the same thing quite a bit recently, and it's odd that his particular misconception is so common.

Here's a fun example of the effective use of the passive voice, in a statement defending the use of the passive voice!

"Indiscriminate slandering of the passive voice ought to be stopped. The passive should be recognized as a quite decent and respectable structure of English grammar, neither better nor worse than other structures. When it is properly chosen, wordiness and obscurity are no more increased than when the active voice is properly chosen. Its effective and appropriate use can be taught."
(Jane R. Walpole, "Why Must the Passive Be Damned?" College Composition and Communication, 1979)

There are always situations in which it is more appropriate and natural sounding to use the passive.  For instance, you would say, "Lightning struck the house" if you were describing when it actually happened, but if you were talking about the devastating effects of the storm afterwards, it would be more natural to say "The house was struck by lightning."  One could argue that the house is the important thing in that statement, so it makes sense for it to be the subject, even though it was just the passive victim.  ;D


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Re: Passive voice is not any verb construction that uses is/are/was/were
« Reply #2 on: February 06, 2017, 07:20:49 PM »
Good examples. I was just thinking of how odd (though not grammatically incorrect) it would be to say, "A bus hit my neighbor."

But  it wouldn't sound odd to say, "A tree fell on my neighbor's house."

Now this gets me to thinking about ACTIVE VOICE with inanimate subjects followed by transitive verbs, like hit, compared to intransitive verbs like fell, which don't take a direct object.

Maybe that accounts for how odd it sounds (to my ear, anyway) to say, "A bus hit my neighbor," rather than the passive voice: "My neighbor was hit by a bus." In either case the poor neighbor is the recipient of the action.

ETA: See more elegant examples of passive voice used effectively by Martin Luther King in the next post
« Last Edit: February 08, 2017, 07:24:36 AM by Munley »


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Re: Passive voice is not any verb construction that uses is/are/was/were
« Reply #3 on: February 08, 2017, 07:22:59 AM »
Pasting this Martin Luther King piece in from an old thread I started on Passive Voice. The article discusses why MLK frequently used the passive voice:

This passage is from page 28 (Page 16 in original paper) of the PDF version of "Public Diplomacy: How to Think about It and Improve It." Black print is from the article, not my commentary.
Online at:

King’s treatment of adversaries is also instructive. King rarely identified adversaries.
Even when speaking of those he deemed responsible for the travails of black people, he relied
on the passive voice (indicated in bold font below), thereby cushioning the impact of his
And when our organization was formed ten years ago, racial segregation was still a
structured part of the architecture of southern society. Negroes with the pangs of
hunger and the anguish of thirst were denied access to the average lunch counter.
The downtown restaurants were still off-limits for the black man. Negroes, burdened
with the fatigue of travel, were still barred from the motels of the highways
and the hotels of the cities. Negro boys and girls in dire need of recreational activities
were not allowed to inhale the fresh air of the big city parks. Negroes in desperate
need of allowing their mental buckets to sink deep into the wells of knowledge
were confronted with a firm “no” when they sought to use the city libraries. Ten
years ago, legislative halls of the South were still ringing loud with such words as
“interposition” and “nullification.” All types of conniving methods were still being
to keep the Negro from becoming a registered voter. A decade ago, not a single
Negro entered the legislative chambers of the South except as a porter or a chauffeur.
Ten years ago, all too many Negroes were still harried by day and haunted by
night by a corroding sense of fear and a nagging sense of nobody-ness.21

         In this passage, the passive voice is both appropriate and effective: appropriate because
the travails were in the past and have since been overcome, and effective because the
passive voice castigates past adversaries without necessarily implicating present ones. The
following passage reflects the same stance:

From the old plantations of the South to the newer ghettos of the North, the Negro
has been confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness. Stripped of the right to
make decisions concerning his life and destiny he has been subject to the authoritarian
and sometimes whimsical decisions of the white power structure [emphasis

      In the above passage, King points to the “white power structure.” For King, this constituted
a fairly specific labeling of an adversary. Even this relatively innocuous labeling was
unusual, for he rarely referred to specific adversaries. On those few occasions when he did, he
seldom described them as invidiously as does the phrase “white power structure,” a term that
could be considered denigrating to white America generally and thus might inhibit his ability
to gain the support of this prospective constituency.
     Instead, King preferred to characterize adversaries in more impersonal terms. For example,
he referred to the “bullies and the guns and the dogs and the tear gas” without referring
to who was controlling the dogs or wielding the guns or the tear gas. He referred to “a
system that still oppresses” without referring to who controlled or supported that system.
     Nevertheless, on those infrequent occasions when King did not use the passive voice
and referred directly to adversaries, he chose labels that were intensely pejorative: for example,
“bloodthirsty mobs,” “hooded perpetrators of violence,” “close-minded reactionaries,”23
“Klansmen,” and “White Citizens Counsilors [sic].”24
King’s occasional references to adversaries also may have . . .

Offline Hrothmeir

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Re: Passive voice is not any verb construction that uses is/are/was/were
« Reply #4 on: February 14, 2017, 01:38:58 PM »
Thanks for all these examples.  Even after reading on the subject, I still find it difficult to properly identify passive voice, and correct usage.  Though i do tend to use it a lot...

Offline JEC112

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Re: Passive voice is not any verb construction that uses is/are/was/were
« Reply #5 on: February 23, 2017, 04:38:48 PM »
Thanks for all these examples.  Even after reading on the subject, I still find it difficult to properly identify passive voice, and correct usage.  Though i do tend to use it a lot...

Let me see if I can make this a little easier and simplify.

Active: The zombies ate him.

Passive: He was eaten by the zombies.

Notice how in passive voice, the imperfect tense is followed by the past participle of the word "eat." In passive voice even though "he" is the subject, the action is being performed by someone other than the subject.

Active: He hit.
Passive: He was hit.

Active: He murdered her.
Passive: She was murdered by him.

As Munley indicated above, there are times when this is acceptable, mainly when the "do-er" of the action is unknown.

Offline Catharina S

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Re: Passive voice is not any verb construction that uses is/are/was/were
« Reply #6 on: December 14, 2018, 09:02:15 PM »
Thank you for this post. I have, in the past, struggled desperately to rid my writing of every possible use of "being" verbs in the mistaken belief that they were indicators of passive voice, only to angrily abandon the attempt when I instinctively realized that there was no alternate way to write a number of said passages.

I am drawn to passive voice because I find the word construction more interesting in not a few cases. Certainly there are many instances where an active voice is preferable, because a passive voice may over-complicate a passage, but it is possible to overuse active voice in turn to the point of oversimplification.

I've come to understand that unyielding application of any rule makes for boring reading. Mastering a rule means that you understand its application well enough to know when it can be broken.