Mistakes in passive voice were made

As direct as I imagine myself to be, indirect verbs make their way into my language — and writing — all too often.

Passive voice — the use of  “to be” verbs — is tempting because it masks the whodunnit of a sentence. Compare “The lettuce was chopped” to “Monica chopped the lettuce.” The first sentence makes the lettuce the star, while the second sentence makes Monica and her confident salad-making skills the focus.

The editor astutely pointed out my reliance on passive voice throughout my manuscript. Perhaps I was subconsciously blurring the whodunnit. Or perhaps I was just lazy. Here’s an example:

As far as trust went, I didn’t think about what he was doing when I was out of town, which was a lot. Trust was like a pay raise – you earned it through time and effort. I had never asked for a pay raise in all my years of working, but they came nonetheless. To my mind, pay raises were granted, not requested. So Colin had not asked for my trust, and I neither granted it nor withheld it – time and effort were being invested. If I had started worrying about his behavior behind my back, which repeatedly had been less than honorable, I would have spent all my time worrying. I didn’t have that kind of energy. The lessons I learned about control – that I didn’t have any control over anything – were put into practice. I didn’t necessarily trust him, but I operated as though Colin were behaving himself.

Shortly after we moved into the five-bedroom house, the police paid Colin a visit. A cop stopped by in the afternoon after Colin got home from work; he probably had been watching our comings and goings. Even though Colin dutifully completed the required sex offender registration paperwork when we moved, the officer informed Colin he was checking on his address, work situation and vehicles. Apparently, the police were more interested in sex offenders in our new neighborhood than they had been in our old neighborhood.

When the cop left, Colin was very upset. He called me at work to rant about the unfairness of it all and how he felt like a hunted animal, less than human.

Though I didn’t feel like Colin was being singled out just to make him miserable, I found the city police officers’ visits to be irritating. During one morning visit, I opened the garage door on my way to work only to find I couldn’t back out because a black-and-white was parked in the middle of my driveway. He popped the siren and the lights, as if to warn me not to back into him. Colin was already at work (this guy apparently missed it during the shift change), and he wouldn’t let me leave my residence until he had firmly established that Colin wasn’t home. I huffily told him that I was on my way to work, and he would have to come back later. Once again, I was appalled that I was being treated like someone who had done something wrong.

“Was” and “were” appear 16 times in those four paragraphs, most of the time for no good reason. Weak descriptors like “thing” and “a lot” make appearances, too. Here’s how I revised the passage to be more active and slashed the “to be” verbs to two:

As far as trust went, I didn’t think about how he occupied himself when I was out of town, sometimes two weeks a month. Trust was like a pay raise – you earned it through time and effort. I had never asked for pay raises in all my years of working, but they came nonetheless. To my mind, workers didn’t ask for more money; bosses granted raises when the work merited it. Colin had not asked for my trust, and I neither granted it nor withheld it – he was investing time and effort in our relationship. If I had started worrying about his behavior behind my back, which repeatedly had been less than honorable, I would have spent all my time worrying. I didn’t have that kind of energy. I put into practice the lessons I learned about control – that I didn’t have any control over people or events in my life. I didn’t necessarily trust him, but I operated as though Colin behaved himself and would eventually merit my trust.

Shortly after we moved into the five-bedroom house, the police paid Colin a visit. A cop stopped by in the afternoon after Colin got home from work; he probably had been watching our comings and goings. Even though Colin dutifully completed the required sex offender registration paperwork when we moved, the officer informed Colin he needed to confirm his address, work situation and vehicles. Apparently, the police trusted sex offenders in our new neighborhood less than I did and certainly less than they had in our old neighborhood.

The cop’s visit upset Colin to no end. He called me at work to rant about the unfairness of it all and how he felt like a hunted animal, less than human.

Though I didn’t feel like the police singled out Colin just to make him miserable, I found the officers’ visits to be irritating. During one morning visit, I opened the garage door on my way to work only to find I couldn’t back out because an officer parked his black-and-white in the middle of my driveway. He popped the siren and the lights, as if to warn me not to back into him. This guy had apparently missed Colin’s departure for work earlier that morning, and he wouldn’t let me leave my residence until he had firmly established that Colin wasn’t home. I huffily told him that my work beckoned, and he would have to come back later. Once again, being treated like someone who had done something wrong appalled me.

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Mistakes in passive voice were made

  1. Passive voice can be a tricky beast. I learned a trick that helped me find it/prevent it: passive voice often follows the same patterns as powerless language. I did a lot of research on powerful/less language in a linguistics class on gender not long ago. Essentially, the research originally stated that women’s language was powerless, but was later amended to make those features genderless. After I learned the difference between powerful and powerless language, it helped with my writing. I found had more force and less “wind up” time. (Is my linguistics nerd showing yet? Haha!)

    Your revision here is great! The revised paragraphs feel smoother but have more punch to them. 🙂 Great job!

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