“Was” isn’t your enemy—here’s what passive voice is really all about

Posted September 22, 2016 by Amanda Shofner in Editing / 1 Comment

Hearing the advice that “was” is passive voice never fails to set my eye twitching.


“Was” (or “were”) by itself isn’t passive voice.

Does it signal weak writing? Sure. An excessive use of “was” means your verb use lacks variety—and it’s often a sign of telling, not showing.

When I reviewed six automatic editing tools for The Write Life, most tools failed miserably at flagging passive constructions properly.

Passive voice, as a grammatical construction, requires a lot more than “was.”

In fact, to spot it, you have to have a pretty good understanding of tense and aspect. It’s an advanced grammatical construction that many struggle with.

Can we dig in? If you’re intimidated, I get it. Grammar is difficult, but it will also make you a better writer. The following pdf is a workshop I put together on tense and aspect. Why is that important? You have to understand English tense and aspect before you can wrap your brain around passive voice.

To recap:

Passive voice is used to shift emphasis. (THIS IS A PASSIVE CONSTRUCTION.) Because I didn’t want the emphasis on the unknown writers (or in this case, me) who use it.

Use passive voice when:

  • The actor (or subject) is unknown
  • The focus of the sentence is on the action, situation, or object
  • The actor wishes to diminish his or her role

You create passive constructions using a form of “to be” and the past participle of a verb. The form of “to be” can come in a variety of tense and aspect combinations, but it’s most common in the SIMPLE, CONTINUOUS (also called progressive), and PERFECT aspects.

The “by zombies” tactic is an easy test, but doesn’t work for everything. The passive constructions I outlined in the pdf above don’t actually cover all the possible grammatical situations passive likes to lurk in. But it’s a good start.

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