Grammar! It’s like math! But with words! Now, doesn’t that sound like a party? Truth is, grammar is one of those things that writers both love and love to hate. It’s the rules of syntax that allow us to tell our stories with precision. We will spend hour upon nerdy hour debating the placement of a word or end mark. Friendships have been ruined and repaired over this stuff. Understanding passive voice (and all other grammar) sets the barriers that writers work with and against to create a friction that results in stories that change lives.
Getting there comes down to understanding passive voice (and active voice while we’re at it) requires a little lesson in identifying the direct object, subject, and verb in a sentence. Before we dig into the must-know information about passive voice, study this vocabulary:
What are the Rules of Passive Voice?
First, let’s replace “rules” with “guidelines” or “norms”. Why? Because ultimately, we’re talking about the craft of storytelling here. It’s art. We don’t need to know the rules because of a specific writing formula to follow. Instead, we need to know them because they guide us in crafting sentences that create depth for characters and plot alike. It’s because of these universally agreed upon norms that we are able to push beyond them in times that call for our characters to speak a certain way, or for a spotlight to be shone on one particular thing versus another.
The passive voice follows the formula of some form of the verb “to be” + past participle. Its purpose is to show that something was done to someone or something by someone or something else.
You’ll notice that the word “by” is a common factor in sentences with passive voice.
Here are a few examples of passive voice:
The cookies were eaten by Santa.
The girl was burnt by the sun.
Flowers were pollinated by bees.
The turkeys were pardoned by the president on Thanksgiving.
Drinks and pretzels were served by the flight attendants.
What are the Different Types of Passive Voice?
Because passive voice isn’t confusing enough on its own, let’s go ahead and briefly discuss the fact that there are ten different ways to use passive voice (don’t shoot the messenger, okay?).
- Simple past: The essay was written by Ben.
- Past progressive: The essay was being written by Ben.
- Past perfect: The essay had been written by Ben.
- Simple present: The essays are written by Ben.
- Present progressive: The essay is being written by Ben.
- Present perfect: The essay has been written by Ben.
- Simple future: The essay will be written by Ben.
- Future perfect: The essay will have been written by Ben.
- Modal: The essay should be written by Ben.
- Modal perfect: The essay should have been written by Ben.
To Be or Not to Be … Passive or Active
Existing – being – is a verb. How a person exists, the action they take at any given moment, determines the way it is written down.
Thus, there are eight different ways to write how something exists. This is one of those things that best explained through example, so without further ado, here are the eight different forms of the verb “to be”:
I want my flight to be on time.
Past participle: been
They have been trying to get through to win free concert tickets.
Present participle: being
Don’t mind him. He’s just being difficult.
Present: I am
I am trying to find the right words.
He is going to propose on her birthday..
They are traveling to Germany to visit family.
When Should I Use Passive Voice?
By now, you’ve probably run into a few sources that say you should avoid passive voice at all costs. The reason for it is pretty straightforward: active voice (the opposite of passive) makes writing stronger by providing details, cutting down on wordiness, and it shines the spotlight where a sentence requires attention – the subject.
Uh-but, there’s a small loophole in this advice. Three to be exact. These are the times in which it is appropriate (dare we say better?) to use passive voice.
It is always best to use as much detail as possible, but sometimes you just can’t because the details aren’t available. For instance, if you’re writing a newspaper article about a robbery. If the suspects are at large at the time of publication you obviously won’t be able to describe who committed the crime. So instead of saying, “someone robbed Mini Mart yesterday” you would say, “Mini Mart was robbed yesterday.”
This one totally depends on the message you’re trying to communicate with your sentence. If you intend to make the focus of a sentence all about one person over another, be sure to use the appropriate voice. For example:
Elon Musk just purchased the social media platform Twitter.
This sentence is about Elon Musk.
But to shift the focus away from Musk and onto Twitter, use the passive voice as such:
The social media platform Twitter was purchased by Elon Musk.
This one is simple since the focus of the writing in science isn’t about the scientists, but on the work they did instead. It’s a given that anytime something is done in science it is conducted by the scientists, so it isn’t necessary to point that out. Thus, passive voice would be the best option here. Such as:
Rats were given a dose of an antidepressant.
Quite possibly some happier rats and some happy scientists who maintain the focus on their work at hand, all thanks to proper passive voice.