Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Passive Voice and Zombies

A lot of writers have a very well tuned passive voice radar--since passive voice is one of the big "no-no's" of writing novels. But sometimes when I'm on critique blogs, I see that some writers seem to find passive voice a little confusing. As in, they're not sure the difference between what's passive and what's merely using a state of being verb. 

If you're one of the people who is confused over whether or not the sentence "Mandy is happy" is passive or not, never fear! I've got a quick and simple test for you.

If you add "by zombies" in the sentence, does it make sense? If the answer is "yes", then you most likely have a case of passive voice. If the answer is "no", then you have some other construction that requires a state of being verb. (And to refresh your memory, state of being verbs are verbs like "is", "was", "are", basically all the conjugations of "to be".)

So is "Mandy is happy" passive?

Let's check.

Mandy is happy by zombies.

Well that makes absolutely no sense. Zombies make me happy, that is true. But happy by zombies? I don't even know what that means. This is just a case of using a state of being verb. I'm saying someone (in this case me) is happy. Mandy = happy. That's not passive. Not particularly a strong statement writing wise, but not passive.

How about this one:

The dog is walked.

The dog is walked by zombies.

Bingo! Makes perfect sense. Can't you just see a group of zombies, shambling down the road with a leash in hand walking a dog. What? You can't? Well, regardless of your abilities to imagine it, it makes perfect grammatical sense.

Like most grammar rules in the English language, there is a caveat to this, and this is the sort of construction most people find confusing in the question "is it passive voice".  What construction?

Suzie is running.

Suzie is running by zombies.

That...makes sense. While not particularly healthy, it makes grammatical sense to run by a group of zombies. But this is not passive voice. Do you see why? 

No? Well, it's because the "by" in this case really means "past". As in Suzie ran past a group of zombies. Suzie was running and a group of zombies were standing nearby. This is not passive voice. In passive voice zombies are actually doing the action. The zombies walk the dog. The dog is the object. In this case, Suzie is still the subject. Suzie is the one doing the running. The zombies just happen to be there when she's doing her running.

The "is running", "was talking", "kept laughing" construction is not passive. It's a construction that says something is on going. Like "I walked into the room and my boss was talking." This gives a different meaning then "I walked into the room and my boss talked." In the second case, it could be I walked in and THEN my boss talked, while in the first case I walked in at THE SAME TIME as my boss talking. Get it? That's not passive. But I feel this is the case that is most often mistaken for passive and writers slap other writers wrists for using it.

Granted adding a state of being verb can weaken your writing, so you don't want to use this construction as much as possible. You don't want to use state of being verbs as much as possible, but there are still cases where something like this might be necessary. 

However, there are also cases when the passive voice can be permissible (gasp! I know that's writing heresy), but more on that on Friday.  

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