Whodunnit: An Exercise in Passive Voice
We’ve all heard the non-apology “mistakes were made.” Chances are that some of us have even used it when trying to admit a mistake without quite fessing up to it. This and similar phrases are so tempting because they’re indirect about whodunnit. And they’re indirect because they use a little thing called the passive voice.
When talking about the passive voice, people often mention that it obscures the agent, which is just a fancy way of saying it hides whodunnit. Take these three sentences:
James hit Marcel.
Marcel was hit by James.
Marcel was hit.
All three contain fundamentally the same content, but they provide the information in very different ways. The first sentence makes no bones about who’s at fault. James did the hitting. The second sentence doesn’t exactly hide the fact that James did the hitting, but it does tuck wily James in at the end there so that the emphasis is on Marcel. The third version gets James pretty well off the hook — we know that poor Marcel was dealt a blow, but we don’t know who struck him. (That crafty James is probably off somewhere enjoying a milkshake and plotting his next assault.)
Sometimes, people use the passive voice intentionally with the aim of hiding who did whatever thing was done.
Other times, people just slip into the passive voice without noticing. The passive voice requires that you use forms of the verb “to be” (is, was, were, will be, and so on), which is a pretty easy habit to get into, since it’s a verb that we’re all very comfortable with. But it’s a filler word in these cases and does little but slow down a sentence. Although there are legitimate uses for it, in general, your prose will be weakened by the passive voice.
If you’re paying close attention, you just caught me using the passive voice. If you didn’t notice, don’t worry — here are some hints for hunting it down. You can generally spot passive voice by watching for the following things:
- A “to be” verb followed by another verb and the word “by”: “Marcel was struck by Joe.”
- The same sentence structure with the “by X” bit omitted, provided you could add a “by X” that provides information about who committed the verb. Watch out for past-tense, though! “James was jumping by Marcel” would seem to fit the pattern, but note that in this sentence, it’s James and not Marcel who’s doing the jumping, so the “by” information provides no information about who’s committing the verb, and this is a sentence in the past tense but not the passive voice.
If you make an exercise of scanning your writing for these types of sentences and changing any that can be rewritten without the passive construction, chances are that you’ll find yourself writing more lively, less cluttered, prose. You may even find yourself inspired to use more vivid and descriptive verbs, and that’s surely a service to your readers.
Of course, there’s nothing like a good example, and I’d like to propose a little contest for which you’ll provide the examples. Here’s what to do:
- On your blog, write a short post (a few sentences, preferably not more than a couple of hundred words) that really abuses the passive voice. Put words in the mouth of a seedy politician. Write ambiguous sentences in which the whodunnit is so atrociously obscured that I split my side laughing while trying to work it out. Compose a fake interoffice memorandum complaining about the dirty coffee pot. Or come up with an idea all your own.
- Then write a revision of it underneath in which you edit out the passive voice except where it serves an important purpose within the piece (hint: the fewer of these the better).
- Keep it pretty clean.
- Post a link to your post here in the comments.
- Bonus points for humor.
I’ll read through the submitted pieces and more or less arbitrarily pick one I liked. The winning entry gets featured front and center here at DailyPost in a few days. Have fun, make me laugh, and assure that I’m dazzled by your editing skills.