To be or not to be – Why the ‘to be’ verb is not always passive

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Ah, the passive voice – much maligned by writers and critics alike. Search the internet for articles on the passive voice and you will find numerous exhortations to avoid it – Lazy writing! Too wordy! Overcomplicated!

Yes, the passive voice can be all of these (sometimes). But, sometimes it can be necessary or useful:

Mary was surprised. The zombie had most certainly been dispatched on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. She should have been compensated by now.

The short paragraph above contains three passive clauses. You can spot them by looking for the to be verb + a past participle. You can also spot them by looking for the object-verb-subject structure. In the above example, there is no subject – which is why the passive voice is necessary.

Zombie

Look what happens when we add a subject:

Mary was surprised at the final balance on her account statement. The zombie had most certainly been dispatched by her on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. She should have been compensated by ZombieTraders by now.

Ugh. That is one ugly paragraph. Just by flipping to an active voice sentence structure – subject-verb-object – you can make it prettier:

The final balance on Mary’s account statement surprised her. She was certain that she had dispatched the zombie on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. ZombieTraders should have compensated her by now.

Notice something about the above paragraph? Both ‘had’ and ‘had been’ make an appearance – but neither create a passive clause.

She had dispatched the zombie on Tuesday. In this case, we need to make the distinction between ‘had dispatched’ (past perfect tense of the verb, dispatch) and ‘had been (dispatched)’ (past perfect tense of the verb, to be). The word ‘had’ + a past participle (dispatched) is not by itself a red flag for passive voice. Only when the had is part of the ‘to be’ verb could it indicate passive voice. Mary had dispatched the zombie – not passive. The zombie had been dispatched by Mary – passive.

She had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. In this case, we need to make the distinction between <had been + past participle>  and <had been + continuous tense>. The ‘to be’ verb + another verb is not enough to indicate passive voice, the verb needs to be in the past participle form. I had been working on the zombie case – not passive.   The zombie case had been worked on by me – passive.

In summary:

  • Both criteria – the ‘to be’ verb AND a past participle – need to be  present for the passive voice to be generated.
  • Passive voice is necessary when the subject of a clause is absent.

And then:

  • There are instances where passive voice is present and unnecessary, but still preferable. This is typically the case when the writer wants to emphasis the object over the subject. Consider:

    The zombies were an abomination, created by the devil for his own perverted entertainment. (object-verb-subject structure, ‘to be’ verb + past participle – PASSIVE)

    vs

    The devil had created the abominable zombies for his own perverted entertainment. (subject-verb-object structure, no ‘to be’ verb – ACTIVE)

 

So, by all means be wary of the passive voice – but please don’t avoid it at all costs.

Hope that helps. Happy writing!

 

 Image courtesy of Daniel Hollister via Flickr Creative Commons
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To be or not to be – Why the ‘to be’ verb is not always passive

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