I recently read the unpublished draft of a manuscript that reminded me of something which hadn’t come up in some time. And this was the problem with material written in a passive voice. It’s easy to assume this is simple to understand via the well-touted converse implications of “The piano was being played by Mary” and “Mary was playing the piano,” but it’s often difficult for some writers to fully comprehend the unintended baggage passive voice brings with it.
Past Tense Shouldn’t be Confused with Passive Voice
As everyone knows, “John walks in the park” is present tense in an obvious active voice. We all learned in grammar school that “John walked in the park” is past tense, and also in an active voice. And that “John was walking in the park” is past progressive tense, but again in an active voice. We were also taught that “John has walked in the park” is present perfect tense in an active voice, and “John had walked in the park” is past perfect active tense. For anyone who has an understanding of the rudiments of English, this is about as basic as it gets, so what’s the problem?
Passive Voice Creates a Different Meaning
The “be’s and the “been’s” seem to creep into some amateur writing with ever-increasing frequency. Phrases tend to crop up like, “John had been walking through the park, then he spied Ellen strolling down the sidewalk.” The sentence would be fine, except it indicates that John was doing his walking in the past, and this is likely not what the author wanted to convey. Meaning, was the intent to imply that John had taken his walk a few hours earlier, or a day earlier, or a week earlier, then at this very moment saw Ellen strolling? Or is the author’s contention that John was in the process of walking and observed Ellen? Of course it was the latter, yet expressed as the former.
An Effective Fix that is Not Always a Simple One
One way to avoid passive voice is to find substitutions for “had” and “have.” It’s not always easy, and all-action verb writing can become overwhelming and annoying to the reader, but judicious alternatives for “had” and “have” will provide a summary remedy. A mess like “Loud rain had been falling on the roof” could be converted to “Rain pummeled the roof.” In the second phrase, the decibel level is obvious by the word “pummeled,” and the single-word verb, while taking the place of the three-word “had been falling,” conveniently places this scene in an active voice.
What about Too Many “Was’s” in a Perfectly Good Sentence?
This sentence is a no-brainer: While John was walking through the park, he was thinking about what was bothering him of late. The last “was” of course could be changed to “had been.” But this next sentence poses a not so easy fix: John was walking through the park, worried about what was happening in his life, and he was particularly concerned about what was occurring with his marriage. Even though everything is active in John’s mind, would not a “had been” help the flow by placing this in front of “happening.”
Let Your Ear Guide You, but Stick to Active Voice as Much as Possible