Pro Writing: Passive Voice & How it Weakens Your Writing

Passive Voice and How it Weakens Your Writing

I’ll be honest – when writing a blog, the writing itself isn’t something that a lot of people think about. You focus on coming up with catchy post titles, creating attractive images, promoting on social media, and coming up with interesting content. But, the writing itself, the words that you use to convey your message, are often not thought about. Sure, you might go through and check for spelling mistakes and grammar errors if you have time, but usually that’s as far as people go in terms of editing.

But – there are a lot of things (beyond spelling and grammar) that you can do to strengthen your writing. One of my majors in school was Professional Writing and we spent hours going over pieces of writing, word by word, carefully considering each sentence and how we could improve it. Now I’m not saying you should spend hours writing every post, but there are a few things that you could keep in mind, which will start to automatically improve your writing over time. That’s why I’ve decided to start this Pro Writing series on The White Corner Creative – so I could share some of the things that I learned with you, for free.

Passive Voice and How it Weakens Your Writing
There’s no system to this series – no order of importance or hierarchy – each post will just be one little tip that I learned to strengthen writing. I’m not saying I use all these tricks on my own writing all the time (because it would take me a week to write one post if that were true) but they are always in the back of my mind, and are just a few things you can consider if you’re looking to improve. In the blogging world, most writing out there is fine – so people don’t notice it. But if your writing is amazing – people will notice it.

What is the passive voice?

The passive voice is, well, saying something passively. Sentences can be either active (when the subject is performing the action) or passive (when the subject is having an action performed upon them). There is nothing grammatically wrong with using the passive, but when you can say the same thing using an active voice, you should. It will make your sentence and your writing stronger.

For example:
The car hit the dog. This is an active sentence.
The dog was hit by the car. This is a passive sentence.

In an active sentence there is an action (verb), something performing that action (subject), and what that action is happening to (object). In the first sentence the subject is the car, and it is acting upon the dog, so the sentence is active. A passive sentence has the same components, but the sentence itself is not active because the subject is not acting, they are being acted upon by something else. In the second sentence the subject is now the dog, and she is being acted upon by the car so the sentence is passive.

When should I use the passive voice?

Now, let’s go back to the first example I used with the dog and the car. This is an ironic example, because in most cases – you would use the passive and say “The dog was hit by the car”. You wouldn’t go to work the day after your dog died and tell people “A car hit her”. You would say “She was hit by a car.”

Why do you say this? Well, because your dog is the victim. Your dog is the part of the sentence you know most about, the action happened to her, and the car is not important to you. “Foxxy was hit by a car” makes Foxxy the focus of the sentence, and lets people know that she was the victim. It also leaves any anger out of the sentence, since most of the time dogs getting hit by cars is the fault of the dog – and just an unhappy scenario for the driver. If you were to say “A car hit Foxxy” it sounds as though you’re putting blame on the driver – maybe you’re even angry at them.

Now, let’s take a similar scenario involving hitting again. If you went to work with a black eye the day after a fight with a coworker and your boss asked you what happened, you wouldn’t say “I was punched in the face by Bob” you would say “Bob punched me in the face”. That is because you want to put focus on the action itself and Bob, the aggressor, the one who hit you. Maybe if you had got in a fight with a good friend and you didn’t want to put any blame on them you would say “I was punched in the face”, because then you’d want to avoid placing blame.

Look at these two scenarios side by side:
What happened to your dog? She was hit by a car.
What happened to your face? Bob punched me.

You wouldn’t say “a car hit her” and you wouldn’t say “I was punched by Bob.” Both passive and active have their appropriate uses, and both can make your writing stronger when used properly.

Passive writing is used strategically in things like contracts and corporate or political writing – when no one wants to take responsibility or be held accountable. Rather than saying “The president was advised by the chief that a man was shot by police today” it would be a lot stronger and less complicated to say “The chief told the president that a police officer shot someone today” but that leaves responsibility on the chief and the police – and no one ever wants things to come back to them when they can avoid it.

What are passive verbs?

That is the the passive voice, but there is another form of passivity that I feel is worth mentioning. This is when you use a passive form of a verb, rather than the active form. The passive form of a verb means that ‘to be’ is actually the verb of the sentence, and you just add -ing onto the actual verb.

For example:
“I write novels.” is an active verb.
“I am writing a novel.” is a passive verb.

Rather than giving power to the verb of your sentence ‘write’ you are giving power to ‘to be’. We see ‘to be’ hundreds of times a day in its different forms (am, is, are, was, were), so that immediately makes your sentence weaker. Whenever you see a form of ‘to be’ in front of a verb, you should always stop to consider whether it is necessary. Then, edit or rearrange your sentence if appropriate to edit it out.

Update: This post has garnered a lot of mixed reactions, primarily because some people do not believe that passive verbs exist. And that’s okay. Passive voice is an accepted part of the English language, but passive verbs are often debated.

This is because of the present continuous verb tense. ‘I am writing’ is the present continuous verb tense. Obviously, sometimes this verb tense is necessary, for example if I’m trying to convey that I am writing right now, at this very moment, I am in the act of writing. This use of the tense is completely necessary and a vital part of the English language.

However, in some cases this verb tense is not necessary, and I believe it makes your writing weaker. For example, if I was at a cocktail party and someone asked what I do for a living. I could either say ‘I’m writing a novel’ or ‘I write novels’. You see that both convey the same thing, that you write novels, but they are worded differently and, in my opinion, one is stronger.

So how do I get rid of it?

Though passive voice and passive verbs are useful sometimes, most of the time they weaken your writing. The examples above are very obvious so that we could think about passivity at a surface level, but most of the time it is lurking in our writing and we don’t even know. Like right there – I did it without even knowing. Do you see it? “…it is lurking in our writing…” That is a passive verb. A stronger sentence with an active verb would have been “…it lurks in our writing…” You can probably already hear how much stronger the sentence sounds. With the verb ‘lurks’ powering your sentence, you can almost see the ‘passive voice’ crouching in the corner ready to pounce.

When you find a sentence that you have used the passive voice or a passive verb in, you just need to narrow down the verb where the passive exists, and change it to an active form. Sometimes you will find that the sentence is actually already using the correct verb, and changing it would not make sense or make the sentence any stronger, in which case you should leave it alone. In other cases you’ll find that changing the verb or structure of the sentence will in fact make your writing stronger.

What now?

Take a post that you’ve already published and read through it. To spot passive voice and passive verbs, I think the easiest strategy is to find all the instances of ‘to be’, and circle them. Some will be passive verbs, some will be passive voice, and some might be both. Then, go through each of the instances one by one. Decide whether the ‘to be’ is necessary, or whether there is a stronger way to write the sentence. If you like the way the piece sounds once you are done, go back in and update the post – and if you really like how it sounds, start applying this strategy to every new piece of writing.

By the way – no one is perfect, and passive voice and verbs are hard to spot. I miss them all the time. Most of the time I’m just too lazy to look, but I really do believe it’s beneficial. Case and point: before I went back and edited it, the title of this post was: “Professional Writing: Passive Voice and how it is weakening your writing”. Can you spot the passive verb?

35 thoughts on “Pro Writing: Passive Voice & How it Weakens Your Writing”

  1. “It is weakening your writing” and “I am writing” are NOT examples of passive voice. This is misinformation.

    1. Hi Margaret. Yes, if you want to get technical ‘is weakening’ and ‘am writing’ are continuous forms of the present verb. However, in my Professional Writing course at UofT, my instructor used ‘the passive’ as an all encompassing term just generally meaning, ‘when verbs are weaker than they could be’. Though it might not be technically correct, I think for the purposes of improving the quality of your blog writing it applies nicely, as stronger verbs always help. It’s also easier to explain to people in this sense that searching for forms of ‘to be’ and working to eliminate them, will help you improve. Thanks for reading!

      1. I will have to disagree, and disagree adamantly and absolutely. The term “passive voice” has a definition, and “when verbs are weaker than they could be” isn’t it. “I am writing a collection of stories about Stacey and Gene” conveys something different from “I write a collection of stories about . . . ” I don’t see anything inherent weak about “I am writing a collection . . . ” It indicates that the activity is ongoing. To call that “passive” or “weak” just does not make sense. And it is, in my opinion as an educator and a writer, wrong wrong, and yet again, wrong. To call it “passive VOICE” is even more wrong.

        1. Hi Margaret, as I said in my post – passive voice does have its uses and appropriate circumstances, and the one you mentioned is definitely one where the present continuous is a good choice.

          However, in other examples, like the one I mentioned ‘the passive voice is lurking in our writing’ vs ‘the passive voice lurks in our writing’ you can see and even feel how much stronger the sentence gets when you delete ‘is’.

          Though the verb ‘to be’ might sometimes be useful and necessary, it is, in my opinion, weak when it is unnecessary, as it takes strength away from the other verb, which should be the powering force of the sentence.

          As you’ll see, I’ve added a note to the post to let my readers know that examples like these are technically present continuous rather than passive, but I’ve left the rest of the post as is, since I do stand by the fact that searching for and being aware of your use of ‘to be’ will strengthen your writing. Thanks for reading!

        2. Goodness you got a little aggressive here. Why the need to be so adamant on her post? Why all the YELLING? You can make your point without being ugly.

    2. I don’t think the continuous present is the same as passive voice, either, but I do believe in getting rid of “to be” whenever possible.

  2. You don’t know what you’re talking about. “I write” and “I am writing” both start with “I” as the subject, and therefore are *both* equally and entirely *active.* “This post is being written by me” would be passive. “Passive voice weakens” and “Passive voice is weakening” are also both active! Stick to things you understand. It will strengthen your writing!

    1. What you are calling “Passive verbs” (ie the -ing form) are actually called present participles. “John is kicking the ball” is an example of present progressive tense, formed by using the verb to be plus the present participle. There is nothing passive about any part of that sentence. If you think that your professor told you to avoid using present participles, you are definitely mistaken. They are a fundamental part of English. What the previous commenter told you is not “technically correct.” It is CORRECT, and you are simply wrong.

      1. Hey Evelyn, thanks for reading! Though I do appreciate commentary and encourage conversation on my blog, I do not appreciate being attacked and insulted. There are mature ways to disagree and to have healthy debate, though many people obviously struggle with that in the online space.

        I answered the last commenter, explained my position, and updated the post to include her comments so that my readers are informed, as you can see above in the post, and that is the most I can do.

        Yes. Passive voice is passive voice, and the examples you gave are all correct. However, as I amended the post to explain – passive verbs do exist. There is a difference in strength between ‘Passive voice weakens your writing’ and ‘Passive voice is weakening your writing’. If you do not see the difference, that is fine, and is your opinion, but it is an opinion.

        If you click through to the links I provided to the last commenter, you will see other people discussing passive verbs and how -ing verbs are not always as powerful as they could be. If it is the word ‘passive’ that confuses you, than perhaps ‘weak’ verbs would be easier for you to understand. You can read those posts to clear things up.

        1. Ok, I have a Master’s degree in English and a second Master’s degree in linguistics, and i teach English at a community college. I am not being mean, but I am telling you that you are wrong. (does that sound weak?) It is a fact—ing verbs are not passive, or sort of passive, or ‘weak.” They are an essential part of the English language. I am not “confused” by your misuse of the concept of passive verbs. It is you who are confused. But you want to pretend that this is a difference of opinion. You heard somewhere that writers should avoid the verb “to be.” Take it up with Shakespeare–“To be or not to be, that IS the question.” Nothing weak or passive or sort of passive there. The difference between “is weakening” and “weakens” is the difference between simple present (a habitual act) and present progressive (an ongoing action), not passive anything. But this is your blog, so carry on. Don’t let actual factual information interfere with expressing your opinions.

          1. Hi Evelyn, thanks again for reading!

            I’d love to put you in touch with the professor who spent many hours and classes teaching us about the difference between weak verbs and strong verbs. He is not only a professor, but the director of the entire professional writing program at The University of Toronto, and has been teaching at prestigious universities such as this for over thirty years. I’m sure he also has many Master’s degrees himself, but has never felt the need to brag about them so I couldn’t say specifically. Unfortunately I don’t want to waste his time just so that he can tell you the same thing that I am telling you.

            I did not misunderstand him, and I did not ‘hear somewhere that writers should avoid the verb “to be”‘. I spent hours upon hours going carefully over every piece of writing I and my class created and highlighting the verb ‘to be’. Then sitting with a focus group, as well as our professor, and discussing whether each ‘to be’ was necessary, or made our writing weaker.

            The fact that you and he disagree while both being obviously well educated individuals makes it an opinion. You say that it is a fact that there is nothing weak about ‘to be’, but that is your opinion. His opinion is different, as is mine, as is the opinion of many other people on the web if you take the time to Google ‘passive verbs’. As I have said numerous times already, ‘to be’ is not inherently weak, but it should be searched out and considered, as it often weakens sentences when it is unnecessary.

            I’m sorry that my opinion has offended you. But as you said, this is my blog, and I will continue to write as I do, and share both my opinions and facts. In this case, passive verbs are both. Thank you for sharing your opinion.

          2. Evelyn did not attack you. She pointed out that you have no clue what you’re talking about, and she was right.

  3. Wow, I’m shocked at how people have attacked you for this! I appreciate you writing it, as it was very informative, so thank you :) It doesn’t seem like something that people need to get so angry about.
    Charlie x

    1. Thank you Charlie! I agree, doesn’t seem like something people would need to get so heated about, but apparently they have a lot of time on their hands! Thanks for reading :)

  4. It’s comments like Evelyn’s that make me gun-shy (which is probably spelled wrong) about starting a blog of my own. My recommendations on comments is to keep them to a voice you would say to a person, in person. If you would walk up to Melissa and say “you are wrong”, fine. If you would soften it a bit in person then do that in the comments. Don’t hide behind the fact that you are not in her presence to be abrupt.

    1. Thanks Jim! I appreciate that. I agree completely, and try to be kind to everyone online, even when I disagree with them.

      But – on the topic of starting a blog – I’d say don’t wait! Comments like these ones are bound to happen, and though they are frustrating, they are also exciting because it means people have found my site and are engaging with my content. And that’s the goal in the end! You also always have the choice of deleting comments like this rather than answering and arguing, but I like to keep the conversation open, no matter how ugly it gets. Thanks for reading!

  5. I just ran across this. Margaret, Evelyn and Verminmccann are correct. Passive is a grammatical form in which the syntactic subject is the semantic object, and the semantic subject is contained within an oblique or prepositional phrase. It’s very well defined and the passive is perfectly OK – it doesn’t hurt good writing. This has nothing to do with the present continuative, which is also perfectly OK. Saying that “my professor has a lot of degrees” is called “an argument to authority” as opposed to “an argument based on facts”. Your professor is wrong. I love the comment “Take it up with Shakespeare”. Sorry, Melissa.

  6. I don’t agree that the subject changes in a passive voice sentence; it simply comes after the verb. When I teach active voice, I tell students that the “doer” should come before the verb. The object still receives the action no matter where it appears in the sentence.

    1. Let me see if I can explain it this way.
      “A hunter shoots a deer.” The hunter acts – by shooting – and the deer is acted upon – it receives the effect of the hunter’s act. Thus, the hunter is the semantic subject and the deer is the semantic object.
      The semantics never change: it’s always going to be the hunter doing the shooting and it’s always going to be the deer that gets shot.
      It also happens to be the case that in this active voice sentence “hunter” is the syntactic (think syntax) subject of the sentence and the “deer” is the syntactic object, with “shoots” as the verb. So both subjects – semantic and syntactic – align in “hunter” and both objects – semantic and syntactic – align in “deer”.
      Now, if we say “A deer was shot by a hunter” – the semantics are the same: it’s still the hunter doing the shooting, so the hunter is still the semantic subject and the deer is still the semantic object. However, since this is a passive voice structure, it’s now the deer which is the syntactic subject, the verb is “was shot” and the syntactic object is “the hunter.” So here the semantic subject (hunter) is aligned with the syntactic object (hunter) and the semantic object (deer) is aligned with the syntactic subject (deer).

  7. I don’t agree that the subject changes in a passive voice sentence. The person or thing doing the action (I call it a ‘doer”) does not change just because it appears in the sentence after the verb.

  8. Thanks for helpful information Melissa.

    I have to say I am absolutely horrified at the way some of the commenters have expressed their opinion on your blog piece. Just because they are sitting behind a computer screen does not give someone the right to be completely rude on another person’s blog space. I am so sorry you had to put up with that, but you handled it very graciously.

    1. You’re so welcome Amanda! Thanks for your support. It seems like some people just don’t know how to have a civil discussion so they lash out rather than just having confidence in their opinion alone. I’m glad my post has helped and thanks for reading!

  9. I’m glad to see that folks are still commenting on this post, as it is an interesting topic and worthy of discussion. I don’t think anyone is being intentionally rude; rather, there is some frustration deriving from some statements and claims which aren’t well supported.
    1. It might be helpful to try to understand why the passive voice is a legitimate grammatical structure. This is a structure which is often used when it’s less important to name the actor. Here’s an example:
    The last words of John F. Kennedy were reportedly, “I’ve been hit.” Now it doesn’t get any more dramatic than a presidential assassination in sight of the public. And I would never suggest that JFK had time to think about what grammatical form he wanted to use. He just said it that way and it conveyed the two most essential pieces of information: 1. Someone had been struck by a bullet and 2. that someone was himself. Of course he had no idea who had perpetrated that dastardly deed.
    There’s a famous line in American sports lore which describes the feelings of a team manager when he lost a game because of a bad decision by an official: “We wuz robbed!” Because of the context, understood by all, it wasn’t necessary to spell out the name of the perpetrator. The important thing was the injustice that had been perpetrated, not the person who had done it.
    As another example, imagine it is 1944 during the Allied push across France into Germany. Suppose someone shouts, “General Smith has been captured!”. This would be stunning news, and it would not need to be stated that the Germans were the perpetrators. That would be assumed.
    So the passive voice has a purpose: it’s a way of getting to the important information quickly, deemphasizing or ignoring altogether the actor, since that information is unknown or specifically unimportant at the moment of the utterance. Thus, the proper use of passive voice aids in good writing.
    It has absolutely nothing to do with passivity or weak writing. You can find the passive voice throughout any work of great literature as well as good writing of all kinds.

    2. Passive verbs. English doesn’t have passive verbs, although Latin does. In Latin, one says “amat” to mean “she loves” and “amatur” to mean “she is loved”. The verb actually changes its morphology (form) to reflect the change in grammatical meaning. English does not do this. English uses passive voice, which is a grammatical form which is syntactically different from the active voice. “She loves” differs syntactically from “she is loved”. (Obviously “loved” is a past participle, but that form can also be used in the preterite of the active voice: “She loved”.)
    So the statement: [“I am writing a novel.” is a passive verb.] is not correct.

    3. “…someone asked what I do for a living. I could either say ‘I’m writing a novel’ or ‘I write novels’. You see that both convey the same thing, that you write novels, but they are worded differently and, in my opinion, one is stronger.”
    I disagree. If I say “I’m writing a novel” that doesn’t necessitate that I do it to make a living. I could be doing it for pure enjoyment with no expectation of submitting it to a publisher. On the other hand, if someone asked, “How are you spending your summer?” the answer “I’m writing a novel” might be a perfectly appropriate answer but if the answer were “I write novels”, that would seem like a strange response. So it depends on the question being asked.

    4. [“…it is lurking in our writing…” That is a passive verb.]
    No, that’s active, present continuous.

    5. [my instructor used ‘the passive’ as an all-encompassing term just generally meaning, ‘when verbs are weaker than they could be’]
    This is very misguided on three levels: a) passive voice is a useful construct; b) English doesn’t have passive verbs; and c) “to be” is not a weak verb. (By the way, German has weak and strong verbs, but this is a morphological concept which has nothing to do with the present discussion.) Just because other languages have certain elements (passive verbs (Latin), strong verbs (German)) that doesn’t mean that English has them.

    6. [“I write” and “I am writing” both start with “I” as the subject, and therefore are *both* equally and entirely *active.*]
    Although the overall point that Evelynu makes is correct, passive isn’t defined by the fact that “I” is in the subject position. It all depends on whether “I” is both the syntactic and the semantic subject, or whether it is only the syntactic subject. (See my posts above).
    Thus, in the active “I shot the intruder”, “I” is both the syntactic and the semantic subject.
    In the passive, “I was shot by the intruder”, “I” is the syntactic subject but not the semantic subject.

    7. “…passive verbs do exist. There is a difference in strength between ‘Passive voice weakens your writing’ and ‘Passive voice is weakening your writing’. If you do not see the difference, that is fine, and is your opinion, but it is an opinion.”
    No, passive verbs do not exist in English, although they do in German. The difference between the two sentences used as examples is that the first one is more general. If I am reviewing someone’s paper, I might say, “Your writing is excellent, but in this paragraph the excess use of adjectives is weakening your writing.” That’s very specific to that one paragraph.
    But I might also say, speaking in general about your paper, “The use of excess compound nouns weakens your writing.”
    So both “weakens” and “is weakening” have their uses.

    1. Hi John, thanks for visiting again and thank you for your in depth answer. However, your explanation has not changed my mind, just like all the others attempting to do so.

      I’m not talking about grammar, or the specifics of what a verb tense is called. I’m talking about being a good writer. You can use the passive voice perfectly and have every grammatical tool in place, but that doesn’t mean your writing is good. It means it is grammatically correct.

      Using strong verbs makes your writing stronger, and using weak verbs makes your writing weaker. You can use whatever term you like to describe those verbs: passive, weak, crippled, dead, etc. I’ve seen a number of different terms used.

      For example, when writing a horror novel you might say: “He was running towards me with a knife and my heart was pounding in my chest.” or you might say “He ran towards me with a knife and my heart pounded in my chest.” The first uses passive/weak/crippled/dead verbs because the ‘to be’ is clouding the true meaning of the action. Neither sentence is grammatically incorrect, but the second is stronger. Stronger in the sense of being able to visualize the action and create a psychic space for the reader to immerse themselves in. Both are describing an action that happened. Sure, you could go into specifics about tense and come up with a scenario in which the first version is more appropriate, but ultimately the second is stronger. It just is. If you can’t see or, more importantly, feel the difference between the two sentences, I don’t know what else to say.

      I have never claimed that using the passive voice is bad. There are many circumstances when it is appropriate. When used intentionally, the passive voice can make much more sense then the active, and can be strong. The point of this post is that the average writer uses the passive voice and verbs unintentionally, without ever realizing it. If they go back and highlight every instance of the verb ‘to be’ in their writing, they will likely find instances where eliminating it makes their writing stronger. Even if they don’t, at least they are will become aware of how often they are using it.

  10. Melissa – Delighted to hear from you and I appreciate your taking the time to explain your position much more clearly. The great thing about discussions like these is that it gives a lot of folks an opportunity to hash out issues and learn from each other on topics that we might not have paid much attention to in the past.
    I think it’s admirable that you are willing to post articles even from those who disagree with you. That’s an indication and mark of intellectual integrity. I have known some who will shut down the discussion if someone disagrees. And I must say I love opportunities to dig deep into issues like these – it’s the best way to learn.
    I should be quick to point out that I also agree with you that we shouldn’t be having a merely “theoretical” discussion. We should be talking about what it is that aids good writing. I’m totally on board with making that distinction. However, the fact of the matter is that when we talk about active vs. passive voice or when we talk about your so-called ‘strong versus passive/weak verbs’, or the inclusion of ‘to be’ in complex verb structures, those are in fact matters of grammar and it is important that we understand exactly what we are talking about. There’s no reason why getting the grammar right should cause any harm to good writing.
    Another area where I am in total agreement with you is that it’s not about who’s using the correct terminology and who isn’t. It’s certainly helpful to have a common understanding of terms, but ultimately it’s about understanding language structures and how they help (or hurt) good writing. If we’re not clear on terms, coming to an agreement on definitions can be done during the course of the discussion.
    So there are quite a few places where our views align.
    You may have reached the limit of your interest in this topic – and I wouldn’t blame you if you had – but I would like to do a deep dive into this subject matter in case anyone else who might be reading this wants to understand the issues more fully.
    OK, here goes.
    1. At this point I think we are both in agreement that the passive voice has its uses and, as I have tried to show, it can be an aid in contributing to dynamic writing. And so I think your subtitle “Passive Voice & How it Weakens Your Writing” is not easily supportable.
    I think I can reassert that English doesn’t have any weak verbs per se – at least not in the sense that Latin does (see previous post); however, if I understand you correctly, what you are saying is that forms of the verb ‘to be’ – when joined with other verbs – can weaken writing. Some of the examples you gave were
    “He was running toward me/My heart was pounding” – bad (to be + run/pound)
    versus “He ran towards me/My heart pounded” – good
    Once again I find myself agreeing with you perhaps to the extent that your choice does reduce the word count and if you feel that reducing the word count makes the writing stronger then I agree that in some instances it certainly may achieve that effect. Editors seem to be big advocates of the idea of trimming unnecessary words! However, I think there’s more to the story than just that – something we’ve been overlooking. I’ll revisit these sentences below.

    2. Now then – let’s say that I’m writing a story about a Navy fighter pilot named Melissa.
    I write: (a) Melissa launched her plane when the commander ordered her to.
    This sentence describes a sequence of events:
    (a1) The commander gave an order;
    (a2) Melissa launched her plane.
    We have two verbs, both past perfect or simple past. (It’s often called ‘perfect’ because it describes a completed action.) Thus, the commander’s order began and was completed and after that the plane’s launch began and was completed. These actions occurred sequentially or serially.
    Now suppose I wrote this:
    (b) ? Melissa was launching her plane when the commander ordered her to.
    I changed ‘launched’ to ‘was launching’. This sentence is quite confusing. What did the commander order her to do while she was launching? It seems like an incomplete thought.
    But now suppose I wrote this:
    (c) Melissa was launching her plane when the commander ordered her to fly east.
    This makes perfect sense. It is clear that while Melissa was in the process of launching her plane she was given an order to fly east. And so instead of describing two sequential events, as in Sentence (a), Sentence (c) describes two intersecting events:
    1. An action in progress (launching), described by the past progressive; and
    2. An order given, described by the past perfect.
    The giving of the order took place while the launch was already in progress.
    Thus, this combination of verb forms – past progressive (was launching) and past perfect (ordered) – enables us to understand the exact relationship between these two events. It just so happens that the past progressive employs ‘to be’ + a verb.
    So, as you can see, the form ‘was launching’ is absolutely necessary to making Sentence (c) comprehensible. There’s nothing weak or “crippled” or “dead” about that form and the verb ‘to be’ is definitely not ‘clouding the true meaning of the action’. In fact, the complex structure ‘to be + launching’ clarifies the true meaning !

    3. In a different story, I might write:
    (d) Amanda was walking through the intersection when she was struck by a moped.
    The reader would understand that there was nothing ‘causative’ here. No one gave an order for this to happen. It was an accident. The reader perceives that the striking of Amanda began and was completed in the course of her journey through the intersection.
    Note that I am using both a) to be + walking and b) a passive voice form ‘was struck’ and yet the sentence is very clear as to what is going on.
    If I were to have written:
    (e) Amanda walked through the intersection when she was struck by a moped.
    then the reader might have wondered about the sequence of events. Did her being struck cause her to walk through the intersection? It might be confusing to some, and so that is why using the past progressive form in Sentence (d) clears everything up.

    4. You write: “This is because of the present continuous verb tense. ‘I am writing’ is the present continuous verb tense. Obviously, sometimes this verb tense is necessary, for example if I’m trying to convey that I am writing right now, at this very moment, I am in the act of writing. This use of the tense is completely necessary and a vital part of the English language.”
    JW: Well, I’m glad to see that you recognize the value of a ‘to be’ + present participle construction. So you’ve shown another case in which this particular structure does not ‘cloud the meaning’. I’ve already shown examples of where the progressive in past tense allows us to describe intersecting events with precision:
    (c) Melissa was launching her plane when the commander ordered her to fly east.
    So now we have examples in both past and present tenses where the ‘to be’ + participle structure is useful and necessary. Since these are both useful and necessary, we cannot make a blanket statement that structures of this type are categorically ‘weak’, ‘crippled’ or ‘dead’.

    5. Here’s an example you give where you disapprove of the ‘to be’ + … structure:
    MC: “For example, when writing a horror novel you might say: “He was running towards me with a knife and my heart was pounding in my chest.” or you might say “He ran towards me with a knife and my heart pounded in my chest.” The first uses passive/weak/crippled/dead verbs because the ‘to be’ is clouding the true meaning of the action. Neither sentence is grammatically incorrect, but the second is stronger. Stronger in the sense of being able to visualize the action and create a psychic space for the reader to immerse themselves in. Both are describing an action that happened. Sure, you could go into specifics about tense and come up with a scenario in which the first version is more appropriate, but ultimately the second is stronger.
    JW: I would talk about it this way: In the sentence
    “He was running towards me with a knife and my heart was pounding in my chest.”
    we are dealing with simultaneous continuing actions. We could also call them parallel actions. Clearly they are interrelated actions, because “my heart” would probably not be “pounding in my chest” if “he” were not “running towards me with a knife”. Thus, there is an element of causation between the two events (running and pounding).
    So if you wanted to be clear that both actions were continuous and simultaneous actions, the sentence is fine. The ‘to be’ + participle structure is a tool that allows us to illustrate simultaneity.
    However, if you want the reader to assume this simultaneity without having it spelled out, then
    He ran towards me with a knife and my heart pounded in my chest. would be fine also.
    I think it just depends on how much you want the reader to assume. However, regardless of which choice you make, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the reader is going to see these actions as parallel/simultaneous/causative.
    And that’s precisely why English grammar provides us with a tool to show parallel and intersecting actions: ‘to be’ + participle: with this tool of grammar, the writer doesn’t compel the reader to assume or guess.
    By the way, another way of showing parallel actions would be:
    He ran towards me with a knife as my heart pounded in my chest.
    The use of the conjunction ‘as’ denotes parallelism and here the perfect works just fine.

    You write: MC: “Neither sentence is grammatically incorrect, but the second is stronger. Stronger in the sense of being able to visualize the action and create a psychic space for the reader to immerse themselves in.
    JW: I would love to understand better what you mean by “creating a psychic space”. As for visualizing the action, personally I can visualize the action just fine with either choice, but the progressive construction affirms for me what I assume to be true – that these actions are parallel.
    You write: MC: “It just is. If you can’t see or, more importantly, feel the difference between the two sentences, I don’t know what else to say.”
    JW: I confess that I don’t know what it means to “feel the difference between the two sentences.”

    6. Now this brings us to your example where there is no simultaneity or parallelism. There is simply a single action:
    MC: Though passive voice and passive verbs are useful sometimes, most of the time they weaken your writing. The examples above are very obvious so that we could think about passivity at a surface level, but most of the time it is lurking in our writing and we don’t even know. Like right there – I did it without even knowing. Do you see it? “…it is lurking in our writing…” That is a passive verb. A stronger sentence with an active verb would have been “…it lurks in our writing…” You can probably already hear how much stronger the sentence sounds.
    JW: Elsewhere you wrote: MC: “‘I am writing’ is the present continuous verb tense. Obviously, sometimes this verb tense is necessary, for example if I’m trying to convey that I am writing right now, at this very moment, I am in the act of writing. This use of the tense is completely necessary and a vital part of the English language.”
    Obviously there is no grammatical difference between ‘I am writing’ and ‘It is lurking’. They are both present progressive or present continuous in the active voice. Neither is a passive verb or a passive voice structure. Thus, by your own reasoning, if you say, ‘It is lurking’, then you must mean ‘It is lurking right now, at this very moment’ just as, when you write ‘I am writing’, you mean ‘I am writing right now, at this very moment.’ There is no semantic difference between saying that you are doing something right now (writing) and that something you have already written is lurking right now in your completed writing.
    As previously noted, when being asked what I am doing right at this moment, I would say, “I’m writing.” as in “I’m writing a novel.” But when asked what I do for a living, I would say, “I write.” as in “I write novels.” The latter implies a general, long-term activity. So there is a difference in implied meaning there and this difference is conveyed by the form of the verb.
    However, I can’t perceive a difference in semantic meaning between “It is lurking in our writing” and “It lurks in our writing.” In other words, I don’t see one choice answering a different question than the other choice:
    Question: Where can we find an example of passive voice?
    Choice a. It lurks in our writing.
    Choice b. It is lurking in our writing.
    But if you wanted to say that “It lurks” is better than “It is lurking” on the grounds that you are saying it with fewer words/syllables, I think that argument is valid.
    You write: MC: “With the verb ‘lurks’ powering your sentence, you can almost see the ‘passive voice’ crouching in the corner ready to pounce.”
    JW: Quite honestly, I don’t understand what you’re saying here. In what sense is the passive voice crouching and getting ready to pounce, given that lurks is in the active voice? Clearly you see something which I just don’t grasp, and I would like to understand this better.

    7. We also have other verbal structures in English which combine ‘to be’ with other verbs:
    (f) Future perfect: By next summer, I will have been here ten years.
    (g) Present perfective: I have been thinking about buying a house.
    (h) Past perfective: I had been thinking about taking a trip.
    If you leave out various forms of ‘to be’ how would you convey these ideas?

  11. I just discovered your blog on Pinterest and I adore this post. Grammar thrills me. Understanding it excites me even more. You just helped me understand passive vs active tense and voice for the first time ever. I could hug you right now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *