Friday, March 4, 2011

Progressive isn’t Passive

Not all uses of the verb be indicate passive voice. There’s also progressive tense, which indicates that the action is ongoing.

Photo by Stuart Pilbrow

A progressive verb is some form of be with a present participle, the –ing version. It shows continuing action. Benny was hiding under the bed when the police arrived. This is an active sentence because the subject, Benny, was performing the action, hiding. Present tense is the same: Mary is going for help. Mary’s performing the action.
Don’t you think there’s a good case for using progressive tense? I do. It doesn’t come up often and would be annoying if it did, at least to me. But I think there’re times when it’s the only thing to do. Examples, anyone?
Passive, the one we try so hard to avoid, is when the subject is acted upon by something or someone else, or the subject receives the action. He was stabbed is passive. Someone else did the stabbing. The key is by. If the action is done by someone other than the subject, the sentence is passive. Passive is formed by adding a past participle to a form of be.
The body was found by a girl and her dog. Aside from being weak, this seems clinical and removed from any emotion. If it’s the first mention of the body, it destroys any impact the discovery might have made. Once the reader knows about the murder and has seen the body, the passive version could fit in dialogue: Hal repeated the story at the meeting. “The body was found by . . .” Hal’s interest is in the body, not who found it.

Photo by Andrey Kiselev (minus bloodstains)

Passive has its place.  There are times, though rare, when passive voice works. The meeting was postponed, giving Olga time to hide the gun and change her blood-stained clothes. The meeting was postponed is passive, and it works here. We don’t care who did the postponing; that’s not what’s important to the scene. What matters is that the postponement gave Olga time to do her thing. It could be made active: The committee postponed the meeting, giving Olga time to . . . To me this detracts from the focus on Olga. It’s just more words that don’t add anything.
 I seldom stick my neck out this far without checking. I looked up passive voice in The Chicago Manual of Style (my first choice in reference books).  CMS says whether you choose active or passive may depend on whose experience you want to show. The man was caught by the police shows the man’s POV, but The police caught the man shows the police POV. 
Okay, ’fess up. Do you ever deliberately use passive voice? Do you see a reason to? Ever?


Unknown said...

Thanks for the grammar lesson. I feel you brought up some very good points.
L. C. Hayden

Patricia Winton said...

Thanks for a good post. Someone recently referred to the past progressive as the passive in your blog. I'm glad you've set the record straight. By the way, the progressive tenses are also called the continuous tenses (present continuous, past continuous, present perfect continuous, past perfect continuous).

Ellis Vidler said...

Patrica, thanks. It's good to have confirmation. Elsie, I find progressive and passive are often confused. Was is the culprit. We hear so much about it, it becomes a bad work in all circumstances.

Polly Iyer said...

Great post, Ellis. You make things easy to understand. I always go through my manuscripts to check my was" usage, and I always find things to change. Your post makes me wonder if my exorcisms haven't been a little too heavy-handed in the past. Something to keep in mind.

VR Barkowski said...

Excellent post, Ellis. Like Polly, I go through and cull every extra 'was' and depend (ha!) heavily on dependent clauses—'Her meeting postponed, Olga hid the gun and changed her blood-stained clothes.' But I write spare.

IMO, the major problem with never wavering from the "rules" is that every sentence sounds the same. How can a writer ever find his or her voice?

Ellis Vidler said...

Viva, way back when, I learned "all things in moderation," and I think that's the way I write. I use "was," gerunds, and everything else. I hope I don't overdo them, but it's difficult to judge your own work.

Polly, IMO culling too many wases leads to awkward constructions or too many exotic verbs. I've put aside books because they were nonstop hyperactive verbs. The writing called attention to itself and I lost the story.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Ellis, what Viva says. I think you could add an occasional passive phrasing to avoid sameness, but also to slow down a scene when you want the reader to take a breath. What do you think?

I had occasion to read a lot of police reports. The officers I read are a textbook case of writing passive. It's as though they want to be far removed from writing active or inserting themselves directly into their case reports.

Okay, when are you going to do something on past and passed. I'm hopeless, even when I have it explained, written out and printed out in front of me. :)

Ellis Vidler said...

Donnell, I do have occasional passive sentences, and not all are deliberate. I look for them when I go back to edit, but some I leave.

I think police officers are trained that way, to be as impersonal and clinical as possible. That's one of the thing Chris, my co-author, likes about fiction--the freedom to include opinions and do it his way.

And thank you! Wonderful--a topic for next week. Passed and past, waive and wave, words commonly confused. Any suggestions?

Donnell Ann Bell said...

past and passed are my problem words, but I see people confuse compliment and complement, affect and effect. Looking forward to seeing if you can help me ;) I literally will reword if I have to used past or passed in relation to walking, I get so confused ;)

Ellis Vidler said...

I'll give it a try. Maybe I can find an easy way to remember the difference. We all need those little cues to remind us.

E. B. Davis said...

I'm trying hard to avoid passive tense in my work. Sometimes its use is appropriate, but when reviewing my script often changing a sentence to active tense (and voice) is easy and apparent. But there are times when it's like a puzzle and I either must re-write the sentence an entirely different way, or just leave it passive.

I like working in progressive verbs into my work. But when it is used too often, the was stalking, was working, was stabbing, gets in the way, too many was words.