#Writing: How to Spot a Passive Clause

Since I am still churning away with edits on Balancing Act (and also writing some new stuff–yippee for new stuff!), I thought I’d do a little post on something I am not even remotely an expert on, and pass(ive) it off as a tutorial. Seriously, I suck big passive cojones, so this is to help me as much as anyone else. Here goes…in three, two…

Wow, this is such a great #teachingblog. I should totally #followit.

…one.

Anyway, the passive voice is one of those writing devils we tend to hear a ton about. It’s a stylistic “error” (for lack of a better word), rather than a grammatical one. Often, the problem with passivity (which, BTW, has not a thing to do with past tense, or tense at all), is it often reduces clarity in writing. Additionally, it can make the author read like a rhetoric-spouting politician. Let’s just look at an example:

The bill to tax individual producers of wind and solar energy was passed in Oklahoma.

That, right there, is some passive spin-doctor shit. It almost sounds like everyone in Oklahoma gave it the thumbs up, huh? Do you know how you can tell this is passive? Add by someone/something to the end.

A bill was passed by sneaky freaking legislatures whose pockets are lined by big business.

Look at me doubling down on the passive clauses!

Who is doing the acting here? It’s the legislatures (and big business). Let’s rewrite this in a more active way:

The sneaky legislatures passed a bill to screw small-time producers of green energy.

Now, it should be noted that neither sentence is grammatically incorrect. Maybe if politicians wanted to make it seem that some vague non-entity passed the bill–it’s not the government’s fault, mind you, it just happened–they would phrase it the first way. Which they do. Passivity is the politician’s playground.

Let’s take another example I like to use when trying to determine if a passive construct is preferable to an active (and it’s all entirely subjective, of course).

Barrack Obama was voted the 44th President.

I add the by at the end and see, yup, it’s passive. But should I reword this?

U.S. citizens voted Barrack Obama the 44th President.

Did I really want U.S. citizens to be my subject? Are they the most important thing about that sentence (ignoring the obvious exchange concerning for the people, by the people, blah, blah, bah)? The argument could easily be made that the subject should be the President and making the voters our subject detracts from the entire point of the statement. Again, it’s stylistically ambiguous.

Let’s take another example and see if you can tell whether it’s active or passive, shall we?

She was running from the garbage truck.

What do you think? It’s got that was, which tends to give people the heebie-jeebies, but it’s not a passive clause. She is the subject. Was (past tense of to be) is a helper for the verb running and the entire thing is written in past progressive (or continuous) tense. If you try the by trick is doesn’t add up. No one else is doing the running for her.

She was run over (by the garbage truck) is something entirely different and is entirely passive. The garbage truck is doing the acting. Of course, if she is my friend, I tend to think she ought to be the subject of the sentence even though the garbage truck was acting upon her. Bad enough she got hit, but now she’s not even the subject of her own story. Insult to injury, I say.

How about another?

The basement had been filled with exercise equipment.

Let’s see…there’s that had been, which is often a red flag. But watch out–to be (in any form) is not always passive. Try the by at the end:

The basement had been filled with exercise equipment by the homeowner.

That settles it. It’s passive. Well, fuck that–let’s fix it.

The homeowner had filled the basement with exercise equipment.

But what if you don’t know who put all that shit in the basement? What if Richard Simmons showed up with a crew of big burly guys and flipped someone’s basement for his new exercise reality TV show?

~Don’t go looking for it. I just made that up. Hey, it could happen.~

If you don’t know who did it, you may decide to leave it passive: The basement was filled with instruments of torture. Oh, but making it active, with the torture equipment front and center, is even better: Instruments of torture filled the basement, covering every square inch in enough wall-to-wall hell to make Ferdinand II of Aragon turn over in his dusty grave.

Okay. Last one.

I had been masturbating when the UPS man delivered a package to my front door.

Oooo, there’s that had been trying to screw with our heads. The sentence gets a little wordy after that, further mucking up the water. Let’s scrap the UPS man to make it easier to identify the conjugated to be as passive or not. Don’t forget to test with a by.

I had been masturbating by… Wait. What?

Hmm. Unless someone else was masturbating me (sigh) I submit that this sentence is perfectly active. I am the subject. Unfortunately, I was masturbating myself (no thanks to the UPS man–he only made the sentence of past perfect progressive/continuous tense because I was actively masturbating when he rang the doorbell and interrupted me). Jerk.

I should really get some curtains for the front door sidelight panels.

Okay, that’s all the writing dissection I’m doing for today. If you’d like to quiz yourself, here’s a handy link. Until next time, when I tackle subject verb agreement. Or not. Maybe sentence fragments. Or I could go on and on about comma splices, they really are a pain in the ass.

Kisses & Cooties,

Kimber

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About Kimber Vale

Author of romance of all stripes. View all posts by Kimber Vale

4 responses to “#Writing: How to Spot a Passive Clause

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