Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pass the Voice: A Look at Identifying and Eliminating the Passive Voice.

We hear it all the time: avoid using the passive voice. If you're anything like me, you need to know what passive voice is to begin with. Only after identifying something can you learn to fix it.

Oftentimes, we associate the "to be" verb with passive voice. That isn't the case in every instance, though a to be verb is frequently to blame in a problematic sentence. We'll come back to this thought in just a minute.

Now then, passive voice = when the subject of the sentence gets an action VS. doing the acting. 

Megan's hair was blown by the wind.

This is a passive voice sentence. Megan (our subject) isn't actually doing anything here despite being the intended focus of the sentence.

To make this an active voice statement, all you'd need to do is reverse the order, giving the action (blown) to the proper subject, (in this case, the wind).

The wind blew Megan's hair.

Notice when switching the subject to the wind, Megan becomes the secondary idea of the sentence. The focus has now shifted to the wind, giving it priority. If you need to keep Megan at front and center, she needs an action to accomplish. 

The wind blew Megan's hair. She pulled it into a ponytail.

There are occasions where we run into a questionable sentence.

Megan was brushing her hair. 

Megan is the subject here, and she's the one taking action. Megan (subject) was brushing (action). What trips writers up is seeing the -ing word as well as the "to be" verb was. While this is technically not a passive voice sentence, it's definitely indicative of a weak sentence. The suggestion would be this:

Megan brushed her hair.

Bam! We've automatically strengthened the sentence by choosing the stronger verb. More often than not, this is the right choice. BUT as it goes with the English language, it isn't a hard and fast rule and depends entirely on the intent of the sentence. Consider this:

Megan was brushing her hair when a gust of wind blew it across her face.

Even though the red flags are there for a passive sentence, the only problem here is the fact that it's telling VS showing. If you changed it to Megan brushed her hair when a gust of wind blew it across her face you've changed the meaning of the sentence altogether. The wind blowing is an action that takes place in the middle of her brushing. She doesn't brush her hair only when the wind blows it across her face.

Now that we've learned to identify passive voice, the question is: how do I fix it?

The first thing you can do is check for those irksome "to be" verbs. Do a Search/Find for the following words in your document:

* is
* am
* was
* were
* have
* had
* being
* been
* be

If you search them one at a time, you can go carefully sentence by sentence and analyze it. If it isn't using the passive voice, consider replacing the "to be" verb with a stronger one or rewording the sentence. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Just remember, the goal is to eliminate a passive voice when it doesn't negatively affect the look/voice/intent of the sentence. Keep in mind, there will be a few occasions where the passive voice is not only necessary, it's stronger for the situation. Listen to your gut. You know what you're trying to say.

Happy Writing.

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