Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The passive voice explained, again

You would think the issue had been settled long since, but no. I blame Struck and White, personally, because they evidently couldn’t tell the difference between the passive voice and the use of “was” or “were” in an active-voice sentence.

Anyway, Katherine Kerr revisits this perennial topic at Book View Cafe, in this case contrasting the passive voice with the progressive tense:

Now consider these:
1. He walked down the road when he saw the bird.
2. He was walking down the road when he saw the bird.

Both are active. The second is in the progressive past tense. … When you are trying to express parallel actions, that is, two things happening at the same time, the progressive tense works much better than the simple past … Sentence 1 is ambiguous, in other words, where Sentence 2 is precise.

Nice example. Click through to read the explanation if you don’t see why the first sentence is ambiguous. Although one might wish to convey ambiguity in motivation, in action, in attitude, or even in outcome, it’s quite true that your job as a writer is to avoid ambiguity in the actual writing.

Mind you, though sentences such as “There were scarlet and orange leaves floating in the pool” are not necessarily passive, constructions using “there were” and “it was” can be problematical for other reasons. (What exactly is the subject?)

However, they are not always awkward.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

This is not passive in construction. And I think we generally agree that the sentence rolls beautifully off the tongue.

And, of course, despite all the scorn heaped upon it, sometimes the passive voice *is* exactly what you want. Remember Admiral Naismith considering the sudden lack of actors from all the action, when his trooper is explaining what happened in the liquor store? I’m not sure if any nongrammarian laughed out loud at that paragraph, but I sure did.

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