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A Matter of Voice

Passive voice will have been murdered by this article (Image courtesy peteSwede at Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Weak verb forms will have been murdered by this blog post (Image courtesy peteSwede at Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Per Shannon’s request and a promise made yesterday, I wanted to include a brief refresher on what, exactly, passive voice is. I might throw in some stuff about weak verb tenses, too, toward the end.

But passive voice! That’s the topic at hand. Before we can get there, though, we need a review of even more rudimentary grammar: subjects and objects.

The subject of a sentence is the thing acting. In simple sentences, it’s usually the first noun phrase. To make it easy, let’s consider the sentence,

Dave shot Adam.

Dave shot Adam! It was just a BB gun, but still, what a jerk. Anyway, “Dave shot Adam” is a simple sentence consisting of a subject “Dave,” a verb phrase “shot,” and an object “Adam.” The subject of a sentence is the thing acting, and the object is the thing receiving the action (or being acted upon). I could say, “Dave fired three rounds” or “Dave shot at the sky” and in both cases Dave remains the subject, the verb remains active, and the object changes to a different noun phrase.

Some verbs don’t require objects, so you could have a sentence like “Dave jumped.” When it comes to active and passive voice, though, we’re only concerned with sentences that do contain a subject. That’s because you create passive voice by moving the subject’s position.

So instead of “Dave shot Adam,” we keep the information the same, but rearrange the word order. It becomes,

Adam was shot by Dave.

That sentence uses more words to convey the same thing. In other words, it’s diluted. It’s weak. You can trim out some of the extra words by changing it to,

Adam was shot.

But that’s still passive voice. You’ve cut out the actor, removing some of the most interesting information. Now, of course, it’s possible that your whole focus is on Adam (not Dave). That’s usually what prompts people to write passive voice sentences in the first place, and why they get so bent out of shape when English teachers or know-it-all bloggers start telling them to reshape their sentences.

Usually, though, you can still make your sentence stronger by switching to active voice. Keep Adam as the first word in the sentence, but make him the true subject by swapping out verbs. “Adam took a BB to the chest,” “Adam ignored the welt that Dave’s unprovoked attack brought up.” Or, to keep it simple,

Adam died.

“Helping Verbs” Help Weak Verbs

The easiest way to spot passive voice is the helping verb, as you can see in the difference between “Dave shot Adam” and the shortened phrase, “Adam was shot.” There’s also usually a preposition thrown in, like the “by” in the phrase “Adam was shot by Dave,” but I’m not really expecting all of you to be able to automatically spot prepositions every time they show up.

You should know what a helping verb is, though, and you should consider it a red flag. Any time you see “was shot” instead of “shot,” “is helping” instead of “helps,” “could have been plastered” instead of “plastered,” you’re dealing with a weak verb phrase.

That’s not to say it’s always a passive voice sentence. We use helping verbs to set up passive voice, but we also use them to manage complicated verb tenses, such as the incomplete and perfect. If I say, “I was going ,” that’s incomplete past tense. It indicates that at some point in the past I was doing this thing, but it doesn’t create a solid sense of a single action. “I went to the store,” though, creates a precise visual image. Something happened.

Just like passive voice, incomplete and perfect tense verbs can be perfectly grammatically correct. They serve a real purpose in the language, but they don’t convey a strong, concrete image, which is usually something you want in your writing. As I said yesterday, I recommend that you use at least one strong verb phrase per sentence, and that you make it the most important action in the sentence.

Adam was walking through the door when Dave shot him.

There’s two verb phrases there, and the first one contains a helping verb (“was walking”), so it’s what I would classify as a weak verb. It’s also the least significant information in the sentence, and I made sure to follow it up with a strong, active voice, simple tense verb phrase.

That’s really the way complicated verb tenses should be used — to set up simple verb phrases. Often any given sentence will mix and match pretty heavily,

I had gone to the store where I bought a thousand potatoes so I could make soup while I was hiding from the storm.

The important thing to remember is that — no matter your intent, no matter how perfect your grammar — your readers are going to pay the most attention to the strongest action in the sentence. If you want to communicate clearly, then, you’ve got to understand that, and work to make sure your sentences say what you want them to say.

2 Responses to “A Matter of Voice”

  1. Glen says:

    Learned something again.
    I thank you..

  2. Carlos Velez says:

    My writing skills have been enhanced by this post, Aaron.