The Passive Voice — Its Darkest Secrets Revealed!

Mr. Fang in B&W

-cue dramatic music-

The passive voice… Among writers, it’s public enemy number one. This heartless killer is responsible for a string of grisly slayings that stretch across history, beginning all the way back in ancient Sumer and continuing on to the present day. It’s already in your home, crawling on your ceiling, and you could be its next victim.

No one is truly safe while the passive voice remains a fugitive from justice, and that’s why I’m here writing this — to expose its darkest, most depraved secrets, and to ask for your assistance in stopping the monster once and for all.

You’ve read that article before, haven’t you? There are thousands of the sort floating around, and they’re completely impossible to avoid. I know… I’ve tried. They’re plastered across magazine covers and they haunt every writing blog’s sidebar, with eye-catching titles like How the Passive Voice is Ruining Your Story, or Six Ways to Find and Eliminate the Passive Voice… Local Water Supply Contaminated by Virulent Passive Voice… National Guard Clashes With Passive Voice in the Streets.

They all make the same claims; that it’s weak, evasive, passionless, bloodless, and annoying. Most throw in a few samples so you can see the beast’s horrific nature, then they wow you with an exhibition of the active voice’s immense muscle… and that’s pretty much it. They give you a pat on the back and send you off to slay the dragon.

This isn’t one of those articles… it’s a response to them. If you’d like to learn the whole story, this is the place to be.

What Is It?!

My first problem with these articles and blog-posts is that they rarely (if ever) describe what the heck the passive voice is.

Let’s buck the trend and start right there.

  • The passive voice is a feature of grammar that allows a transitive verb’s object to become its subject instead.

That sounds entirely too technical, wordy, and just plain bleh. To put it another way, the passive voice is a tool that allows you to flip a verb around.

Let’s try some of those example things the kids love so much:

  • I kicked the cat.
    subject -> transitive verb -> object

  • The cat was kicked.
    subject <- transitive verb in passive voice

See how the verb rotates? In the first sentence, it’s acting on the thing to the right (the object); but in the second, it’s acting on the thing to the left (the subject). It’s the same verb, with a different direction.

And that’s basically all the passive voice does: it takes the object and makes it the subject.

Side-Note: Those words are entirely too similar, aren’t they? It’s a pain. If you have as much trouble with them as I do, it might help to imagine a police officer calling in over the dispatch, “We have him in sight. The subject took an object.”

In that sentence, subject is the subject, and object is the object. Not sure if it’ll help, but give it a shot.

There are some other technical details about the passive voice that are useful to know, but if technical isn’t really your cup of tea, feel free to skim the next paragraph. You can also skip over the Fun-ish Facts and Further Adventures throughout the rest of the article.

The Passive Voice In-Depth — In English, the passive voice always includes a transitive verb in its past participle form, and is typically preceded by a helper (or auxiliary) verb. The helper is usually to be, but it can be replaced with to get in informal style. There are other, less common forms of the passive voice which exclude the helper verb altogether, but we’re focusing on the basics today.

Further AdventuresTo be is easily one of the most common verbs in the English language, used not only on it’s own as a linking verb (a copula), but also in combination with other verbs, in order to form tenses. There are several verb tenses that simply don’t exist in English if to be isn’t invited to the party.

Most verbs are regular like to happen, which has the possible forms happen, happens, happened, & happening; meanwhile, to be is irregular, meaning it has unusual conjugations. It can show up as be, am, are, is, was, were, being, & been.

Not all irregular verbs are as chaotic as to be; take for instance sing (sing, sings, sang, sung, singing); bring (bring, brings, brought, bringing); or keep (keep, keeps, kept, keeping).

What Isn’t It?

For a change of pace, I’d now like to point out several things that are not examples of the passive voice.

Allons-y!

  • The cat was fearful.
    This looks kind of like the passive voice, but it’s just a plain old linking verb. As evidence, note the conspicuous lack of a second verb. We need two verbs to form the passive voice (except in some very rare cases).

Fun-ish Facts — Linking verbs aren’t active or passive, because they’re not acting on anything — only linking. The thing they link to is called a complement.

Check out what happens when you try to put linking verbs in the passive voice, though:

  • The cat was been.(!)
  • The cat was become.
  • The cat was seemed.(!)

Yeah… only the become example sounds remotely grammatical to me, and that form apparently fell out of popular use around 1940. Current standard English doesn’t seem to do that at all.

  • I was kicking the cat.
    Here, we have to be and a transitive verb. Eureka, right? Not so fast. This is an example of the active voice and the progressive aspect. Despite sounding like a new age cult, the progressive aspect just means that the verb is describing a continuous action (i.e., something that goes on for a while). We can tell it’s not the passive voice because I’m kick-ing; the passive voice only exists when something is being kick-ed.

  • I had kicked the cat.
    This also looks suspicious–heck, I even kick-ed this time–but no cigar. This is an example of the past perfect, which I’m sure you already know is superior to the present tense, thanks in part to its total lack of flaws… I’m just messing with you. In reality, the past perfect is used to communicate that my kick was over and done with, having happened at some earlier time. We know it’s not the passive voice because of the word had; if the only helper verb is some form of to have, then we’re definitely not looking at the passive voice.

Further Adventures — For more fun, we can even combine these different features… and this is where some of the examples get a little wacky.

  • The cat had been kicked.
    past perfect + passive voice
  • The cat was being kicked.
    progressive + passive voice
  • The cat had been being kicked.
    past perfect + progressive + passive

The first two aren’t all that special, but you sure don’t see the last one very often. Apparently, we don’t much need to describe… uhhh… continuous actions… in the past… with the recipient of said action as the subject?

  • There was no reason to kick the cat.
    The structure of this sentence is a little more complex. It begins with a dummy pronoun (also called a pleonastic pronoun), which is different than most pronouns because it doesn’t represent anything. It’s just there to complete the sequence. Here, the dummy is followed by a linking verb, which links to a noun phrase with an embedded infinitive phrase — There / was / (no reason / to kick the cat)

  • I didn’t do it.
    That’s a negation of a verb in the active voice, and another verb in the active voice.

  • The cat became angry.
    Another linking verb.

  • The cat disappeared
    Intransitive verb. That means it doesn’t act on an object, so (like linking verbs) it’s neither active nor passive. By that, I mean you can’t disappear the cat (unless you’re a dictator), and funny things happen if you try to put it in the passive voice — e.g., The cat was disappeared.(!)

That’s 7 examples, and not a single one displays the passive voice.

As you might have guessed, I chose this specific set for a reason — in most of those friendly articles, offering oh-so earnestly to improve your writing, these other grammatical structures are given as examples of the passive voice. They’re all thrown in the same garbage bag, and taken out to the curb together.

We’re essentially being told to ignore half the tools in our kit. Any of that fancy stuff that uses auxiliary verbs? Yeah, scratch that crap out. No decent writer uses more than two verb conjugations, and your prose will be so much tighter once you’ve trimmed the fat.

Writers are being led to believe that horrible monsters lurk in every sentence, waiting to jump out and ruin a reader’s day. As a result, some are editing themselves right up to the brink of madness, and that’s only a slight exaggeration. I once met someone intent on removing every last instance of the word was from their novel. The target? That dastardly passive voice, of course.

I imagine the next step would be to set the manuscript on fire and watch it turn to ash. After all, it’s the only way to be sure.

…and this attitude isn’t even rare.

But Won’t It Kill You?

To be totally fair, I’ve read articles with accurate and useful examples of the passive voice. They picked their assailant out of the line-up and sent it off to the big house.

But what’s the passive voice accused of exactly?

It’s a messy grab bag of complaints. We’re told the passive voice is weak, deflectionary, mischievous, and always up to no good. It hangs out with the wrong kids, smokes cigarettes, and is no doubt getting our stories into trouble. The passive voice is–according to these reports–Eddie Haskell.

It ruins our prose, making it limp, flaccid, and wordy… but there’s still hope! The doctor has a magic blue pill to cure what’s ailing us. Just learn to activate those sickly sentences, and your work will become mighty once again!

For evidence, these articles offer a few example sentences to prove the infection’s lethality. Let’s take a look at one set from William Strunk & E.B. White’s The Elements of Style.

The Elements of Style

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:
I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

This is much better than
My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise.

There’s an obvious problem here: it’s not a real example. This isn’t a quote plucked from a student paper, or some failed novelist’s manuscript. This was designed solely to show you how disgusting the passive voice is. It’s a carnival trick.

You might think I’m just slinging mud, but I have a question for you: Would you ever have written that sentence on your own?

I’ve never accidentally written a sentence like that, and I don’t imagine you have either. I’ve never once found one like it while giving feedback. I’ve never even heard anyone speak that way.

“Honey, could you make me some toast?”
“Screw you, Fred. I’m done with you… with this life… with this marriage. The toast in this house will never again be made by me!”

The example in The Elements of Style is a mutant abomination that exists only in the author’s imagination. It’s a paper tiger.

How about a counter-example?

Unedited

I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

Experiments

My first visit to Boston shan’t ever be forgotten.

My first visit to Boston won’t ever be forgotten.

My first visit to Boston won’t be forgotten.

My first visit to Boston won’t be forgot. (informal style)

To be fair, I changed the verb in order to produce something more idiomatic, but the meaning remains the same. Do any of those seem any less direct, bold, or concise than the active version? To my ear, they don’t.

The only substantial change is the introduction of a small ambiguity: the person remembering is implied, but it’s not set in stone.

…which leads us to another problem with examples like this: they never have any context.

Sentences don’t just exist on their own. They don’t live like hermits in the desert, foraging for edible cacti and bird carcasses. No, they hang out in great fat cities full of sentences, with oodles of information surrounding them. They have context.

So, let’s try a little context.

Experiment

That sweet summer is written in indelible ink. I drank, and wandered, and stumbled; I laughed, and I fell down. There were long days of partying, and nights spent singing, joking, falling asleep in someone’s arms. I recalled old times with older friends, and learned to forget the oldest of wounds.

My memory is broken and failing all these years later, but I know it won’t fail me this once. My last visit to Boston won’t be forgotten.

Does the passive voice in the final sentence strike you as weak, indirect, or needlessly wordy? I’m not sure of your answer, but for me it’s a big no.

Another common claim is that the passive voice is naturally evasive, used by politicians and other weasels to conceal their guilt… and there is some truth to that idea. The passive voice absolutely can be used for that purpose; but it’s not the only way, nor is it necessarily the best.

Leaving our poor cat alone for a moment, let’s build some example sentences. Imagine I’ve lost an important file and am trying to hide that fact.

  • The file was misplaced.
    Sure. This is in the passive voice, and it not-so-subtly obscures my guilt.

  • Someone misplaced the file.
    This is in the active voice, and also manages to hide the party responsible.

  • The file vanished.
    This is an intransitive verb, and it gives no hint that I’m at all connected.

  • No one knows where the file went.
    One active transitive, one intransitive. I don’t see the guilty party anywhere.

  • Let’s worry about the file later.
    Imperative, followed by a predicate verb phrase. I’d dare say this one’s the best deflection of the lot.

My point is that a quality like evasiveness comes from the meaning of your words. Grammar doesn’t have much to do with meaning; it’s just the tool you use to get yours across.

If you’re still worried that the passive voice is inherently weak, just imagine a football player spiking the ball and shouting, “That’s how it’s done!”

That’s a customary thing to say when the other team just got served, right?

Meanwhile, the active voice can be remarkably weak, passive, and boring. I sat on the floor; I looked at the wall; I wasted time and chewed gum. Even our aggressive (and even horrifying) sample sentence–I kicked the cat–can seem weak and pitiful in the right context. For example, what if the story is about the cat?

It’s all about context and meaning. Not grammar.

If the passive voice doesn’t do any of this, what does it do? Honestly, I’m only certain of one thing: it promotes an object to subject status. Every other possible effect will depend on what you’re saying with it.

But Then I’ll Never Get Published

“I’m not just writing for fun,” you may be angrily shouting, perhaps while throwing rotten cabbage at the screen. (Ewww… stop that!)

“Someone has to hold the line,” you might even go on, as if I didn’t just interrupt you. “The publishing world is vicious, and if I don’t write like a professional… if I don’t aspire to the highest possible standards, I’ll never score either an agent or a publishing deal.”

This may surprise you, but I wholly and completely agree: we have to aspire to the highest standards. But to do that, we need to know what those standards are.

According to one study, roughly 13% of verbs in published works are in the passive voice (approximately 1 in every 8). That’s close to the amount native speakers use the passive voice in their everyday lives.

Let’s keep in mind that this is just an average, though. Some writers will use it less often, while others will tend to use it more; both will vary over the course of a given work.

A few writers, though, use it quite a lot more…

George Orwell, a staunch and frequently cited opponent of the passive voice, used it 20% of the time in the very essay where he decried its use. On average, that means every fifth verb was passive.

I want to reiterate that: George Orwell told readers to avoid the passive voice while using it more often than the average writer.

Orwell isn’t an exceptional case, either. Take for example The Elements of Style, probably the most popular book on writing ever written, which is routinely held up as a banner in the war against passive constructions. In the first paragraph of E.B. White’s 2000 revision, four of five transitive verbs are in the passive voice.

That’s five opportunities to make the text more bold, direct, and concise, and he squandered four of them. That doesn’t sound much like avoidance to me.

Please, don’t misunderstand me — George Orwell and E.B. White were both brilliant writers who inspired countless others across the globe to sit down and start typing. They attracted audiences in the millions, and won some of their fields’ highest accolades… and despite that, I suspect they were just like the rest of us in one important regard: they were neurotic and hyper-critical of their own style.

The truth is that the greatest and most respected writers in history have all used the passive voice… even those who led the crusade against it. And we’re not talking about a bit of innocent experimentation under the bleachers, either. This is habitual use. Chronic use.

I’m probably silly for thinking this, but if there’s a choice between following a great writer’s advice or following their example, I’ll take their example every single time.

Story Time!

To put this whole silly situation in context, let’s imagine a little scene. You’ve just plopped down on the couch for some quality time with the TV when the doorbell rings. With a groan, you climb to your feet and head to the door, where you find a friendly exterminator waiting on your step.

“Good afternoon,” he says with a smile and a wave. “Just dropping by to let you know there’s an infestation of muscovy ducks in the neighborhood, and since I’m already here, I can spray your house today for half-price.”

“Muscovy ducks?” you say. “Are they dangerous?”

“Absolutely,” he replies. “They can give you and your children HPV. It’s grim, deadly stuff.”

You’ve seen ducks splashing around in the pond across the street, but you’re not totally sure what a muscovy duck is. “What do they look like?” you ask.

He says, “Here, let me show you,” and pulls out three pictures: one is of a duck, the next a squirrel, and the last a breadbox. “So… seen anything like this around lately?”

Guilt splashes over you like hot gravy and your breath catches in your throat. These deadly ducks are all around you, and you never even knew. How could you be so irresponsible?

Still, you’ve got a niggling suspicion that something’s off, so you bid the exterminator adieu and send him on his merry way.

As you storm back into the house, your first instinct is to get a gun and murder every last muscovy duck in town, but you instead find yourself hunting around for information, terrified that you’ve unwittingly given your children a killer disease.

That’s when you find it.

Muscovy ducks aren’t a nuisance in your area, they have nothing at all to do with squirrels or breadboxes, and they’re physically incapable of carrying HPV. The final straw is a picture of your new friend, the exterminator, feeding a flock of rather familiar ducks while on vacation last summer.

After that, would you still pay him to spray your house?

Where Do They Live?

Alrighty, let’s see here… Melodramatic opening? Done. Even more dramatic reversal? Done. Definitions, examples, celebrity brow-beating, & awkward analogy… Done, done, done, & done. We’re cruising right along.

If you’re still here, you probably feel at least a little skeptical about the whole matter… but let’s try a little optimism for once. Let’s say I’ve put forth a compelling case, and you no longer believe the passive voice murdered your parents in a dark alley.

How and why would you use it?

For this section, I’m going to try something else that’s conspicuously absent from popular articles on the subject: quotations from a respected author’s published work. Today, we’ll be examining text from Stephen King’s Misery.

…and away we go.

Misery

The new novel was called Fast Cars, and he hadn’t laughed when it was done. He just sat there in front of the typewriter for a moment, thinking You may have just won next year’s American Book Award, my friend. And then he had picked up–

Here we see the passive verb phrase was called in the paragraph’s opening clause. Why exactly did King decide to use the passive voice here?

It’s possible that he wanted to put emphasis on the novel and its title, before switching focus to the character’s actions for the rest of the paragraph. The person who did the calling isn’t specifically stated, but is easily understood from context.

That’s just a blind guess, though. Why don’t we experiment a little, rephrase it in the active voice, and see what we get?

Unedited

The new novel was called Fast Cars, and he hadn’t laughed when it was done.

Experiment

He called the new novel Fast Cars, and he hadn’t laughed when it was done.

First up, we can see that switching to the active voice added no new information; we already understood he was the one calling the novel something. It also fails to make anything sound more vigorous or powerful, in my opinion.

The active voice does however introduce a small repetition that wasn’t originally there. We now have the subject he heading both clauses. The word not only repeats, but does so in the same role, which makes it more conspicuous.

Stephen King has professed to disliking repetition (something I think every writer hates), and I’d wager that avoiding it was his main motivation here. The trick about this specific repetition, though, is that it has an effect on emphasis. The active voice clause emphasizes the character, while I think it’s clear that the original’s emphasis was on the book.

The active version also adds ambiguity. The end of the sentence (…when it was done.) could now refer to his earlier action (He called it…), rather than to the book itself. The passive voice removes that ambiguity.

Further Adventures — In that sentence’s final prepositional phrase, we see was done, which looks at first blush like the passive voice, but it’s not and we can prove it.

The phrase was done can be either a verb in the passive voice, or a copula linking to a participial adjective. If we’re really curious, we can test it by writing an active voice equivalent, e.g. …he didn’t laugh when he did the new novel. That doesn’t work at all, so it must be the other.

Fun-ish Facts — A participial adjective is a verb (specifically a transitive verb in its past participle form) that we use the same way we use adjectives. I glared at the kicked cat, and it looked wounded. Both kicked and wounded are participial adjectives here. We can make that more obvious by replacing them with adjectives: I glared at the fuzzy cat, and it looked adorable.

On the other hand, if we replace the verbs with intransitive ones, we get something ungrammatical: I glared at the slept cat, and it looked ran.(!)

Misery

He dreamed he was being eaten by a bird. It was not a good dream. There was a bang and he thought, Yes, good, all right! Shoot it! Shoot the goddamned thing!

Here we see a past progressive verb in the passive voice. I don’t have any immediate theories about why he used the passive voice here… so it must be time for another experiment!

Unedited

He dreamed he was being eaten by a bird. It was not a good dream. There was a bang and he thought…

Experiment

He dreamed a bird was eating him. It was not a good dream. There was a bang and he thought…

To my eye, this introduces a few problems. The first is that it shortens the sentence by several syllables; it’s followed by an even shorter sentence, and together they create a terse and more stilted rhythm. We can partially repair this issue by inserting an optional that.

Experiment

He dreamed that a bird was eating him. It was not a good dream. There was a bang and he thought…

Reading through the rest of the passage, the repetition of was also starts to stand out, while in the original, the passive voice seems to mask one instance of the word.

Last, there’s another slight change of emphasis. The final word in his sentence is bird, which seems a bit more striking than him.

Misery

“A ways,” she said vaguely, looking off toward the window. There was a queer interval of silence, and Paul was frightened by what he saw on her face, because what he saw was nothing; the black nothing of a crevasse folded into an alpine meadow, a black where no flowers grew and into which the drop might be long.

This one will also require some experimentation to figure out, and it turns out we can build two active voice options with the same words.

Unedited

…and Paul was frightened by what he saw on her face, because what he saw was nothing…

Experiments

…and what he saw on her face frightened Paul, because what he saw was nothing…

…and what Paul saw on her face frightened him, because what he saw was nothing…

This is another situation where emphasis comes into play. We can end the clause with face, Paul, or him; in my opinion, face is the strongest option. Also, the intentional repetition of what he saw sounds more haphazard in my active voice versions, weakening the contrast between the objects of those phrases (face and nothing).

It’s also important to note that this clause sits in the middle of a fairly long sentence, involving a range of different topics, and ending on a particularly complex metaphor. Despite that, if you read the passage aloud, I think you’ll find that it has a great rhythm.

I don’t imagine it was an easy sentence to write, and I suspect rhythm would account for most of the challenge. Sometimes, the difference between a paragraph that dances and one that stumbles is nothing but a single syllable.

Further Adventures — I almost thought this one was a participial adjective at first (like done), but it’s definitely not. We can tell because of the next phrase, which starts with by. By-phrases don’t work with adjectives, nor do they work with participial adjectives; …and Paul was fearful by what he saw on her face…(!)

It must be the passive voice then.

Further Further Adventures — There are other changes that occur when translating it into the active voice. For instance, the order of nouns in that clause switches from him-him-her to him-her-him. Embedded inside of an already complex sentence, that might be a little too chaotic.

Next specimen…

Misery

Then, hours later, after the sandwiches and potato salad had been eaten, after the last few drops of Kool-Aid had been coaxed from his father’s big thermos, just before his mother said it was time to pack up and start home, the top of the rotten piling would begin to show again–just a peek and flash between the incoming waves at first, then more and more. By the time their trash was stashed in the big drum with KEEP YOUR BEACH CLEAN stencilled on the side, Paulie’s beach-toys picked up…

Here we have… wow… an even larger and more complex sentence. Just look at that thing.

There are several features which appear to be used for rhythmic purposes (e.g., hours later inserted between commas; consecutive clauses with the same verb conjugation; the use of more and more at the end). The resulting rhythm is impeccable, and that’s (in part) thanks to the two clauses in the passive voice.

I’m not going to do any experimenting on that one. I might hurt myself.

Misery

He was Paul Sheldon, who wrote novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers. He had been married and divorced twice.

That’s two verbs in the passive voice… or, arguably, two participial adjectives. It’s impossible to tell, because it works either way.

As a type of statement, though, this is one place where the passive voice is completely unexceptional and invisible: a summary of personal experiences. He’d been sued a dozen times. He had been married, divorced, drugged and kidnapped… twice.

But would it be better in the active voice? Let’s see.

Experiments

He had married and divorced twice.

People had married and divorced him twice.

In the first, I’ve chosen to use the two verbs intransitively (some verbs go either way), and that allowed us to retain He as the subject. The other is an attempt to reconstruct an active version out of the original passive voice… and it sounds awkward.

Further Adventures — In the last example, people could either refer to the women who married and divorced him, or the courts who married and divorced him. It’s not entirely clear.

Misery

“It took me by surprise,” he said, remembering only at that moment how he had been taken by surprise. He did not yet remember that he had also been quite drunk.

This is a past perfect verb in the passive voice. Nice, simple, easy.

Let’s chop it up.

Experiment

“It took me by surprise,” he said, remembering only at that moment how it had taken him by surprise.

That sounds a little different to me. The original says there’s something unusual about the way he was taken by surprise, but the active version doesn’t make that clear. It seems instead to be synonymous with:

“It took me by surprise,” he said, remembering only at that moment that he had been taken by surprise.

Further Adventures — You might wonder if had…been quite drunk is an example of the passive voice. We have two clues that it’s not: it’s preceded by quite, an adverb that doesn’t normally modify verbs (e.g., The cat was quite kicked(!); I kicked the cat quite(!)). The other clue comes to us by way of Douglas Adams — if was drunk were an instance of the passive voice here, it would mean someone–or something–drank him.

Disturbing.

We’re here at the last example! This one is also a Stephen King quote, but it comes from his book, On Writing.

On Writing

Messrs. Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners.

Oh…

I only have one response to that: I much prefer a boisterous partner.

Get to the Point

Despite what you may be thinking, I didn’t quote that to slam Stephen King. He’s not another hypocrite in the vein of George Orwell or E.B. White, completely indifferent to his own advice. He hates the passive voice, and when I began to search through Misery for examples, I discovered just how much he hates it.

With any given author, you can expect to run across the passive voice at least a few times per page; the going rate is around 1 in 8 verbs. In contrast, Stephen King regularly avoids its use for pages at a time.

The rest of the passage goes on at length about how much he despises the passive voice, and it’s clear that he intentionally avoids its use. That’s what convinced me to use his examples: his uncommonly rare usage could yield useful insight, illustrating situations that might force an author’s hand.

I found that each verb could be rephrased in the active voice, but it didn’t yield a single improvement, and several were noticeably worse. In many cases, this seemed to hinge on interactions with nearby clauses and sentences, which made the passive voice the best choice.

On the other hand, I don’t for a second think those are the only occasions when it could be useful. We read examples of the passive voice all the time and never notice, not because it’s some shadowy assassin, patiently waiting to slit our throats, but because it’s a perfectly natural and common part of our language. One which published writers everywhere deploy with deftness and skill.

Stephen King’s sparse examples of the passive voice in Misery don’t stick out, and you could argue it’s because he used them so sparingly, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’d wager he could use it ten times as often and none of us would be the wiser, and that’s all because he’s clearly well acquainted with his tools… even the ones he wishes didn’t exist.

You’re free to use the passive voice as rarely as you like, and you can even decide not to use it at all. After all, no one ever went wrong by modeling their style on Stephen King’s. But if that’s what you want, it’d help to know exactly what you’re trying to avoid.

That’s been my motive all along: not to convince you to use the passive voice, but to help you recognize and understand it, so you can make your own decisions.

Any Parting Thoughts?

Well… more than that, I really just hope you never write one of those tired, confused hit pieces on the passive voice. Aren’t there enough, yet?

Call it my pet peeve. Some folks hate the word moist, and others can’t stand impact as a verb. Quite a few are bothered by the use of less with count nouns. Me? I friggin’ hate these weekly tirades against the passive voice.

There are so many strange and wonderful challenges in storytelling–some already well understood, others still waiting to be explained–and if we could start talking about all that stuff, I’d be positively tickled pink.

Let’s write articles about character arcs, story beats, and plot development. Let’s talk about the challenges of balancing description and action. Let’s all write a thousand words about trying to achieve that quiet moment in a scene right before things explode.

Hell… let’s talk about our favorite writing snacks, if only to save the world from another broken tirade against the poor passive voice.

A small part of this article relies on my own original research. The rest was gleaned from the work of Geoffrey K. Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, regular contributor at Language Log, and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. His article on this very subject, called Fear and Loathing of the English Passive, is hilariously grumpy, fabulously informative, and freely available online

I also use (and strongly recommend) Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which isn’t the sort of dictionary you might think. It has answers to every language question you’ve ever asked, and (unlike most sources) their answers are backed by research, history, and evidence.


Once upon a time, Chris J. Randolph was a pimply faced kid in a black jacket, living in fear of the passive voice and its festering evil. Now he’s a pimply faced adult who bitterly wishes he’d never called the exterminator.

He’s a high school graduate who’s read a few books on grammar and linguistics, follows several celebrity linguists online, and has self-published a handful of books about living technology, hulking barbarians, and wizards in space (all separately, of course).


Shyamalan Ending: The cat was the passive voice all along! Mind = blown, right?

PS—

With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen.?—?Stephen King

Isn’t that literally the plot of Misery?

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6 Comments

Filed under Writing

6 responses to “The Passive Voice — Its Darkest Secrets Revealed!

  1. Fantastic!! Love this so much (and am also a Language Log fan!). I think learning linguistics is just as valuable and important to writers as learning grammar, because then you learn the reasons behind the rules and when and why it’s perfectly fine to break them. Now whenever I come across ridiculous passive voice paranoia, I can point writers to this article 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Keri! And I couldn’t possibly agree more with your stance on linguistics. It allows us to analyze writing, talk about technique clearly, and avoid the vast sea of bad advice available online. Because of that, getting more writers acquainted with the technical aspects of our work has become one of my core missions.

  2. Pingback: Stop giving a damn what Stephen King (or any writer) tells you about writing | Kamal Kamyab

  3. Oh my, I literally just stumbled onto this article, and I’m high-fiving all over my office. 🙂
    English is an incredibly rich language. It has one of the biggest toolboxes of any language, and all those tools allow us to create nuances of meaning, flavour, texture, rhythm and even music in our prose.
    Why would any sane author throw away one, rather powerful tool in their toolbox?
    Thank you, I’ve truly enjoyed this article.

    • You’re very welcome! I’m always glad to be part of a high-five, no matter where I sit on the production chain. 🙂

      And I could hardly agree with you more. English is a vast and complex subject full of strangeness and beauty, and if I can manage to cast even the tiniest ray of light into its depths, I’ll feel like I’ve done some good in the world.

      Thank you so, so much for the lovely comment!

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