There’s not a lot of love going around for the passive. The list of those who’ve given it a mauling includes George Orwell, Strunk and White, and Stephen King. But is it really such a bad thing to use in fiction specifically? And do the people who criticize it always know what they’re talking about?
Be Your Own Copy Editor #10
A piece of writing advice that circulates and circulates is that you should avoid using the passive. American writers and editors in particular will recognise this injunction. A highly influential source of the advice is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and EB White – ‘The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive,’ they write. Elements is not particularly well known on this side of the Atlantic, but in the States it is considered by many to be a writing bible, and Time says it’s one of the 100 most influential books written in English of the last 90 years.
The list of passive aggressors also includes George Orwell, who, in an essay written in 1946 called ‘Politics and the English Language’, tells us to never use the passive where we can use the active (if you don’t know what either ‘passive’ or ‘active’ means, don’t worry, because I’m going to explain later). But he shoots himself in the foot somewhat by using the passive when he tells us to avoid it (‘the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active,’ he complains apparently without any irony whatsoever).
However, there doesn’t appear to be much discussion out there about whether it’s a good idea to use the passive in fiction specifically, though I notice that in On Writing, which talks about fiction-writing craft, Stephen King directs a few hard punches towards the passive’s solar plexus, equating the passive with timidity, safety, passivity and terrorism. (Okay, I made that last bit up.) Whether or not its use in fiction is discussed much, I suspect many fiction writers have been conditioned to believe the passive is a bad thing while passing through the higher education system, since you don’t have to dig hard to find an incredible amount of hostility being directed towards it by those marking student essays.
What makes discussion about the passive a little difficult is that a lot of the people who talk and write about it wouldn’t actually know what a passive-voice clause looked like if it hit them in the face – and that includes academics, writing tutors, self-appointed writing experts and a few editors, judging by the misinformed discussions I’ve seen about the passive on the Net. Often people don’t recognise it when they see it, or they see it when it’s not there. There are a fair few misconceptions and misunderstandings about the passive, such as the belief it can only be formed with the verb to be (actually, to get is used a lot, and to have and a handful of other verbs can feature in passives in certain situations) and it gives a formal tone to writing (‘Vince got his chest waxed’ is formal?). All of this means that before talking about the virtues or otherwise of the passive in the context of writing and editing fiction, I’ll need to establish what it looks like.
I’ll break the passive down into two similar but different types. To identify passive-voice clauses of both types, we need to take a close look at verb phrases. When I use the term ‘verb phrase’, I mean a verb string, such as could have been drinking in ‘He could have been drinking antifreeze for all he cared,’ or was trying to sober up in ‘He was trying to sober up.’ (Note that the term ‘verb phrase’ has a different meaning in linguistics from this one, which comes from the world of teaching English to speakers of other languages. Also note that neither example sentence is written in the passive voice.)
What we’re looking for in the verb phrase to identify a passive-voice clause of the first type are two things combined: a penultimate verb form that’s a form of either the verb to be or to get, and a past participle as the final verb form.
A form of to be or to get + a past participle
Let’s clarify what past participles look like. As labels go, ‘past participle’ is a pretty bad one, since past participles are not always used to talk about the past. However, it’s the term everyone uses, so we’re stuck with it. If you look at a verb table of the type that foreigners use while studying English, you will see three forms are always given – and the last is the past participle. For example, the past participle of the verb to mug is mugged (mug, mugged, mugged), and the past participle of to know is known (know, knew, known). (In case you’re wondering, the first of the three verb forms is the base form, or infinitive, and the second is the past-simple-tense form.)
So, in the sentence ‘My mother was mugged while visiting Barcelona,’ the following is a passive-voice clause:
My mother was mugged . . .
We know it’s passive voice because it meets our criteria: we’ve got a past participle at the end of the verb phrase (‘mugged’), preceded by a form of to be or to get (‘was’).
My mother was mugged . . .
to be + past participle
A passive-voice clause needs a grammatical subject, too – which it has in our example clause (‘My mother’).
My mother was mugged . . .
Subject + to be + past participle
We can form a passive of this type using the verb to get as well.
My mother got mugged while visiting Barcelona.
Subject + to get + past participle
Notice how using to get instead of to be gives a more colloquial sentence.
So, to reiterate, the combination we’re looking for is the following:
Subject + to be or to get + past participle
Incidentally, my mother really was mugged in Barcelona. A thief riding on the back of a scooter tried to wrench her camera from her. She wouldn’t let go of the camera strap, and she was dragged along the road for a while. But she’s okay now, thanks – this happened a long time ago.
Often the form of to be or to get will be right next to the past participle, as in the example clauses above, but not always. Sometimes an adverb or two will get in between them – for instance, ‘viciously’ in the following:
My mother was viciously attacked while in Barcelona.
Subject + to be + adverb + past participle
I’ve used simple sentences with simple verb phrases for the sake of clarity, but of course verb phrases can be more complex. The italicized parts of the following example sentences are all passives:
My mother has been mugged only once in her life.
My mother could have been mugged again if she hadn’t decided afterwards to keep her valuables in the safe at the hotel.
My mother would never have been mugged if she’d kept her camera in her bag.
My mother is definitely not going to get mugged when she visits Lisbon, because she’s much more aware about safety now.
Let’s now compare the active with the passive so that we can see the difference between the two. Here’s an active-voice sentence:
The police later caught my mother’s mugger.
In this sentence, the grammatical subject, ‘The police’, is performing the action of the verb – catching my mother’s mugger. This is therefore an active-voice sentence. The subject is in the doing role. By contrast, in a passive-voice clause such as ‘My mother was mugged’, the receiver of the verb action, the person or thing having something done to him or her or it, my mum in this case, is the subject. (Note that we have to be careful about saying verbs express actions, since sometimes they don’t.)
I would hazard a guess that the passive structure I’ve just outlined is the main one stalking the highways and byways of written English. It certainly appears to be the one people who talk about the passive have in mind. There is another fairly prolific type, though, and it never seems to get a mention – the have/get something done structure.
With this type of passive, usually either the verb to have or to get is used in the penultimate-verb-form slot, and to be is never used. Here is an example:
Tina got her roots done yesterday.
In that sentence, we’ve got a subject (‘Tina’), a form of to get (‘got’) as the penultimate verb form in the verb phrase, and a past participle as the final verb form (‘done’). But the big difference between this type of passive and the first type is that a noun phrase (‘her roots’ in this instance) interrupts the verb phrase, coming immediately before the past participle.
Tina got her roots done yesterday.
Subject + to get + noun phrase + past participle
Here is the sentence using the verb to have:
Tina had her roots done yesterday.
Subject + to have + noun phrase + past participle
Note how informal sounding this second type of passive can be. Here are some further sentences written using the have/get something done structure:
Jeff and Gemma are getting their conservatory built by an amazing Polish builder.
Winston has his dreads done by a barber over in Elephant & Castle.
Rita is having her car MOT’d next Monday.
It would be wrong to say that what I’ve given you is all you need to know to recognise the passive, but it is a lot of what you need to know. If I were trying to give a complete picture, I would point out a few more things. First, with the first type of passive, sometimes the verb in the penultimate-verb-form slot is left out. Imagine, for example, the newspaper headline ‘Marcus’s Mother Mugged in Barcelona’. That’s a passive with ‘is’ omitted: ‘Marcus’s Mother [is] mugged in Barcelona’. Second, you’ll occasionally see the have/get something done structure used with verbs other than to have and to get – for example, to see in ‘I saw this guy beaten to death right in front of my very eyes.’ Third, in English dialects, present participles can be used in the past participle slot to form a passive, usually in association with the verb to need – for instance, ‘This cheese needs eating before it goes off’ is a passive (‘eating’ is the present participle here).
I learned those last two things while researching this blog – they were news to me – thanks to the writings of Geoffrey K Pullum, who is professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and the scourge of anti-passive propagandists everywhere. If you want to get a black belt second dan in the passive voice, I suggest you read this article of his, though unless you’ve studied linguistics, you’re likely to find it a challenging read. In fact, award yourself a black belt third dan if you can assimilate everything he says.
Is there a place in fiction for sentences like ‘My mother was mugged while visiting Barcelona’ and ‘Tina had her roots done yesterday’ and ‘This cheese needs eating before it goes off’? Of course there is. The passive has a legitimate place in writing in general and fiction in particular, and it most certainly has a legitimate and important place in writing and talking about crime.
Crime novelists naturally reach for the passive when they don’t want to reveal who did something – a murder, say. Imagine the following sentence near the beginning of a crime story:
Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered while on her way home from North Grange Academy.
We have a passive clause there – ‘Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered’ – and the person who killed Jemma, whom we can refer to as the agent of the action, murdering Jemma, isn’t mentioned. The above sentence is a very natural one for a crime novelist to write. If the sentence were written in the active voice, making the agent of the action the subject of the sentence, the denouement of the entire novel, who killed Jemma, would be given away:
Caretaker Jason Stephens murdered schoolgirl Jemma Richards while she was on her way home from North Grange Academy, the school he worked at and she attended.
‘Great,’ says the reader, ‘I’ve only got to page 8, and the author has already told me who done it. May as well put my Kindle down and get to work building that winter shelter for feral cats I’ve been putting off.’
The original sentence, ‘Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered while on her way home from North Grange Academy,’ would also be a natural one for a newspaper reporter to include in a news story. Imagine Jemma’s body was found yesterday, and the police don’t yet know who murdered her. In this case the passive is used partly because the agent of the action is unknown.
Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered while on her way home from North Grange Academy. In a statement, West Mercia Police asked anyone who witnessed any suspicious activity in the streets around the school between 4 p.m. and 4.30 p.m. yesterday to contact them.
But note that not mentioning the person or thing that performs a verb action isn’t a defining characteristic of the passive. We can reveal the agent of an action while using the passive voice:
Jemma Richards was murdered by caretaker Jason Stephens while she was on her way home from North Grange Academy, the school he worked at and she attended.
Writers naturally reach for the passive when they know the agent of an action but don’t want to give that person or thing top billing in a sentence. Let’s return to the sentence about my mother getting mugged to clarify that point.
My mother was mugged while visiting Barcelona.
I don’t actually know who mugged my mother, though I could’ve found out at the time, since the guy who did it was arrested soon after. But finding out who mugged my mother didn’t seem important to me and still doesn’t, since I was – and am – more concerned about her than I am about the mugger. The sentence above reflects that, putting my mum in the spotlight there at the beginning of the sentence while not even mentioning the mugger. Imagine if I did convert that passive-voice clause into an active-voice one, giving the mugger – whom, as I said, I don’t know from Adam – top billing (and a made-up name):
Oriol Penlaver mugged my mother while she was visiting Barcelona.
A reader would ask, who is this Oriol Penlaver guy? Is he some kind of super-thief? Should I have heard of him? Suddenly Oriol is in the spotlight rather than my poor mum, whom Oriol dragged behind his scooter while stealing her camera, for crying out loud.
One of the silly things that anti-passive propagandists do – actually, I’ve been somewhat guilty of the converse in this blog – is invent a daft passive-voice sentence as an example of why using the passive is so very wrong. They parade a sentence like the following, to jeers and catcalls from readers:
The ball was kicked by the boy.
Then, to cheers, they restore sentence-level feng shui:
The boy kicked the ball.
This kind of thing is plain stupid and doesn’t relate to real-world writing. The passive doesn’t exist only in relation to the active, and the active doesn’t exist only in relation to the passive. They’re just different, and we use them at different times for different purposes. If English is your first language, it’s highly unlikely that you ever think about whether to use the passive or active voice while writing a sentence in your novel. You don’t wake up in the morning, yawn, stretch out your arms and think, I really want to write a passive-voice clause today. Or, while at your keyboard, think, I’ve written four active-voice clauses in a row. Perhaps I should now follow them with one written in the passive. You just naturally select the passive voice when it can perform a function that you want performed in a particular passage. Same goes for the active, of course.
In my day-to-day copyediting, I don’t actually come across many occasions when I need to pick up an author on his or her use of the passive. I can’t be absolutely sure, but I suspect the reason the passive isn’t much of an issue isn’t that the writers I work with have already purged their paragraphs of sentences like ‘The bar was gone up to by Jake, and a Rolling Rock was ordered by him,’ converting them into the active (‘Jake went up to the bar and ordered a Rolling Rock’). When I do come across a passive-voice clause that doesn’t seem to sit right, I usually point out that there’s nothing wrong with using the passive per se, just that in this particular instance using it might not be a good idea.
What I occasionally see and flag – and what you might want to look out for as you edit your novel – is a passage like the one that follows. Imagine a private investigator called Arturio visits a mansion. He’s come to interview a rich playboy called Gerald, who may be involved in an insurance fraud and subsequent murder.
Arturio knocked on the door, then stood back, with his hands in his pockets. The door was opened. Arturio went in and waited in the hallway. He could hear someone coming down the stairs.
Our passive-voice sentence here is ‘The door was opened,’ and the problem is that readers are going to wonder who it was who opened the door. There’s a little hole in the narrative. This could actually be fixed while still using the passive – ‘The door was opened by the maid’ – or an active-voice sentence could be used: ‘The maid opened the door.’ Note how the first revision brings the maid into the story but keeps the focus on the door, while the second brings the maid into the spotlight.
I suspect writers write sentences like ‘The door was opened’ in the context above because they feel that if they bring the maid into the story, they will have to describe her and develop her as a character, when what they really want to do is get Arturio in the same room as Gerald with minimum fuss, because that’s the scene that’s going to move the story forwards. It’s a valid concern. If you write the same scene in the way that follows instead, you’re creating the expectation that you’re going to develop the maid character, and readers will feel short-changed if you don’t.
Arturio knocked on the door, then stood back, with his hands in his pockets. The maid opened the door. She was wearing a pink hoodie with ‘Babe’ written across the chest and grey tracksuit bottoms, had her hair tied back in a ponytail, and was holding a damp cloth in one hand. Arturio went in and waited in the hallway. He could hear someone coming down the stairs.
What’s the answer? You could describe the maid, as I’ve done above, and go on to develop her as a minor character, or you could accept that sometimes it’s okay to write a bland, functional sentence like ‘The maid opened the door’ – if that’s your idea of a bland sentence.
But context is everything, and sometimes you might want that hole which the passive can give. Imagine Arturio is being forced at gunpoint to go into the mansion, and he doesn’t know who or what lies in wait inside.
Arturio felt the barrel of a gun digging into his lower back as he stood in front of the mansion. The front door was opened – by whom, Arturio couldn’t see. ‘In,’ ordered the guy behind him with the gun.
In that case, the fact that it’s not clear who opens the door adds to the tension and gives the reader the feeling that he or she is really seeing the scene unfold from Arturio’s perspective. In terms of POV, this scene is written using third-person close, and use of the passive helps create narrative intimacy with our viewpoint character, Arturio. Contrast that passage with the following:
Arturio felt the barrel of a gun digging into his lower back as he stood in front of the mansion. A six-foot, 250-pound gorilla with ‘Hate’ written across the knuckles of both hands opened the door.
In that instance, I’ve created a feeling of menace by describing the thug as physically large and by suggesting he’s aggressive. But would Arturio really notice the thuggish guy’s tattoos and evaluate his height and weight during the second in which the gorilla opens the door? It seems unlikely, and it reads like that information is instead coming directly to the reader from the narrator. We’ve lost the feeling that we’re seeing the scene unfold through Arturio’s eyes.