Monday, November 16, 2009

The 'Was' Debate

Passive voice, my own personal seventh circle of hell. This is the issue I struggle most with and it might be because I write in the past tense. It feels more real to imagine my MC recounting the story of her adventures.

What I have discovered in researching how to cure my little problem, is that it might not be as bad as it seems. The use of the word 'was' does not necessarily mean that you are in passive voice, and if you are using passive voice, it is not always a bad thing.

According to Merriam–Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, the passive voice should be used when the receiver of the action is more important than the doer, or when the doer is unknown, unimportant, or perhaps too obvious to be worth mentioning, as in these examples:

The child was struck by the car.
The store was robbed last night.
Plows should not be kept in the garage.
Kennedy was elected president.

From The Columbia Guide to Standard American English:
Active voice makes subjects do something (to something); passive voice permits subjects to have something done to them (by someone or something).

This article brings up the common misunderstandings of passive voice.

'If you get rid of every instance of past continuous tense and turn all your 'was' sentences into sentence fragments, your writing might be safe from passive voice construction, but it's not necessarily going to be good writing. It's going to run the risk of being ambiguous, choppy and difficult to read.'

I know most of the current advice says to avoid the passive voice at all costs, that it denotes weak writing, but what are your opinions?

Should we absolutely avoid passive voice at all costs? Or is it a necessary evil in some literary situations?


  1. Great post and thanks for the link! It was a good read and cleared up a misconception I had about active vs. passive. This also inspired me to do some more research and really try to get my WIP in order. It will take me a few weeks, but I have to get going on it.

    I don't think passive voice should be avoided at all costs. Sometimes it is important for things to be written in passive voice because we want to highlight what is being done as opposed to who or what is doing it.

  2. Thanks and thanks for the link. I struggle with this as well, and I think sometimes passive voice is necessary.

  3. That's a relief that I am not alone in this!


It helps to know I'm not just talking to myself.