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Are You Sure You Know the Rules? Passive Versus Active

2015 February 3

Vintage inscription made by old typewriter Know the rulesI once heard the story of a woman who always cut the end of her roast off before she put it into the oven to bake. One day, her daughter asked her why she always did this. The mother shrugged and said she didn’t know why, but her mother always did it, and she assumed Grandma had a good reason. So, the next time the granddaughter spoke to her grandmother, she said, “Grandma, Mom always cuts the end of the roast off before placing it into the oven. She said that she learned it from you. Does it make the meat tender or tastier?” The grandmother laughed. “Child, I cut the end of the roast off because I had a small pan, and I couldn’t cook the entire roast at one time.”

Writers are sometimes like the woman following the example of her mother without knowing why she did it.  This week, I want to review a few of the rules that I find writers hear and run with. They don’t stop to ask why or if there are exceptions. Knowing the rules, helps us to determine the exceptions and, yes, the time when those rules are begging to be broken for style’s sake.

Today, let’s talk about the biggie because this is the rule that I followed blindly, and when I found out that I really only understood part of it, I rued the time I’d wasted and vowed to always get to the bottom of the rule before following it.

We’ve all heard this one. If you’re a new writer, and you’re just learning the Thou Shalt Nots, and you haven’t heard it, even without my little post here, you would hear it soon.

Never use a passive verb (any verb that is a form of to be: was, were, is, are, am, been). While this is a good rule to follow for the most part, it isn’t logical to eliminate all forms of to be from our prose, but why?

Let’s start with the reasons we should examine our sentences for the passive form: using active verbs not only tightens our sentence structure, it creates a better picture, and it keeps the reader close to the action. In the sentence “Tommy was bitten by the dog” Who is really the subject of the sentence? The dog, right? He’s doing the action. Tommy is the direct object. He’s being acted upon. Putting the subject first, following it with a stronger verb, and then putting the direct object in its proper place, does exactly what I said it should. “The dog bit/mauled/mutilated Tommy” tightens the sentence, paints a more vibrant picture, and the action happens in real time for the reader, thus bringing the reader closer to the scene.

Let’s look at another example of active versus passive verbs: Tommy was walking to the store. That’s a passive sentence that can be made stronger: Tommy walked to the store.

That sentence is good unless I want to share that something happened to Tommy in the past while on his way to the store. Then for clarification and grammatical correctness I would write: Tommy had been walking to the store when the dog bit/mauled/mutilated him.

So, sometimes, there is a purpose for the passive form of the sentence. Granted, most times, eliminating the passive form of the verb and substituting it with a vibrant one that sets the tone of the sentence is the way to go. No one is arguing that.

The trouble with this rule comes when we hear that all forms of to be must be eliminated, but we don’t know why. Then we set out to do just that. Believe me. I did.

While the exercise was a good one for me because I became very creative with my verb choices, I learned that not all uses of the to be form are passive.

For instance, how can you say, “I was here” if you really only mean to say that you were there for a short moment? If you stayed there, stayed would be a great word choice, even the word visited is a strong verb, but if I only breezed by for a moment, I was there. That is all.

Examine your passive sentences. Sometimes, all it takes is to exchange the to be form of the verb for a more vibrant, picturesque verb without changing the meaning of the sentence, do it. And yes, a verb can be as vibrant as an adjective. Look at the three different verbs I used for Tommy’s bite. They all paint a little different picture.

Another good way to dig out the to be forms is to determine if the subject and the direct object of the sentence are out of place. If they can be switched, most often the to be form can be eliminated, the sentenced tightened and the offending passive verb exchanged for a much better one.

Books Collage

Fay Lamb (The Tactical Editor)  is an author, editor, and writing coach.

Her emotionally charged stories remind the reader that God is always in the details. Fay has contracted three series. Stalking Willow and Better than Revenge, Art of Characterization Cover FINAL FRONT (2)Books 1 and 2 in the Amazing Grace romantic suspense series are currently available for purchase. Charisse and Libby the first two novels in her The Ties That Bind contemporary romance series have been released. Fay has also collaborated on three romance novellas: The Christmas Three Treasure Hunt, A Ruby Christmas, and the newest A Dozen Apologies. Her adventurous spirit has taken her into the realm of non-fiction with The Art of Characterization: How to Use the Elements of Storytelling to Connect Readers to an Unforgettable Cast.

Future releases from Fay are: Everybody’s Broken and Frozen Notes, Books 3 and 4 of Amazing Grace and Hope and Delilah, Books 3 and 4 from The Ties that Bind. Also, look for Book 1 in Fay’s Serenity Key series entitled Storms in Serenity.

Fay loves to meet readers, and you can find her on her personal Facebook page, her Facebook Author page, and at The Tactical Editor on Facebook. She’s also active on Twitter. Then there are her blogs: On the Ledge, Inner Source, and the Tactical Editor. And, yes, there’s one more: Goodreads.




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