We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice. —Sydney J. Harris
Run on sentences, digressions, slips of the tongue, false starts, back-pedaling—the spoken word knows no budget. Whether a speaker rambles or stammers, uses colloquialisms or expresses emotions in inarticulate sounds, his audience hears more in a given time than a reading audience could read. A reading audience also has limited time. Throw in the reader’s tendency to tire or become bored, and you can imagine the challenge posed by the constraints of the medium. Prose must be lean.
The written word is a dense language. It must accommodate the constraints of time and yet flow with ease. It must hold the reader’s attention.
Good writing uses a number of architectural schemes to design language that pleases the ear, fills the eye, and arouses readers with meaning and mood. The first of these schemes, in structure and in superiority, involves the verb.
As action drives a story, the verb drives the sentence. Active verbs push and push hard. Passive verbs stall.
A verb is active when its subject performs the action.
A verb is passive if its subject is being acted upon.
I gave up on love.
Love was given up by me.
Passive Voice = form of to be + past participle
Passive constructions use a form of the to be verb (is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. (The past participle is a form of the verb that ends in –ed (most of the time).
Horns were blown, bells were rung, ticker tape was thrown from office windows.
What can you do when the to be verb bogs down your writing? Identify the subject of your sentences and supply them with a verb that makes them do something.
Horns blew, bells rang, ticker tape rained from office windows.
For some writers, the passive verb count can climb upwards of eighty percent, as seen in the following paragraph.
Carolyn was on the edge of the cliff. The sea was 300 feet below her. The man who was chasing her was only a few yards away. She was not sure what to do. It was certain death if he was to catch her. The rocks below were jagged, and the water was swirling in rapids and whirlpools. The man was closer now. There was not a good choice. She was not sure what to do when suddenly she was sliding. The gravel was loose, and her decision was made for her—she was falling.
A tense moment in a story should make readers feel tense. The pace of the above episode slows as readers yield at each to be verb. Suspense turns to tedium and squanders the drama. Watch what happens if you rewrite the passive verbs.
Carolyn stood at the edge of the cliff. The sea below roiled and crashed against the rocks. She turned to see the man pursuing her. His arms pumped, the gap between them narrowed. She looked again at the jagged shoreline. Could she clear the rocks? He would kill her. She inched forward, hesitated. Could she survive the fall? Gravel shifted, and her arms flung wide. She grasped at the air. Carolyn slipped from the reach of her pursuer and plummeted 300 feet to the sea.
The second version delivers what the first version failed to produce—a sense of immediacy. Readers can see the action, as well as Carolyn’s indecision. They can identify with her fear. Action verbs create a sensory experience.
The more we revise our work to eliminate passive verbs, the more natural it becomes to write in active voice. Practice trains our ears. We become intolerant of the rhythm-less drone of wordy, passive prose.
Let’s look at another example, excerpted from Henry Adams’ Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Notice the musculature with which he describes an inanimate object.
The archangel loved heights. Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot, Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth which seems, in the eleventh century, to leave hardly room for the Virgin of the Crypt at Chartres, still less for the Beau Christ of the thirteenth century at Amiens. The archangel stands for church and state, and both militant.
Surely, if Adams can endow sculpted stone with brawn, we can bring momentum to the actions we write about.