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?