So you think you can spot the passive voice? Bet you can’t.
A recent First Page entry at Dear Author (Trespasses and Sins) nearly made my brain explode. The first paragraph starts thus:
The lamb’s blood was splattered against the wall. Its bleating shrieks of pain and surprise drowned out the crowd noise around them. The woman covered her ears to the animal’s pitiful cries. In a circle, the seven of them stood around the dying creature.
Of all the bloody (ha!) things to criticise about the work, some commenters immediately latched on to the first sentence. Among the criticisms (I’ll link directly to the comment for attribution—this post isn’t about pointing fingers):
#1 Ouch, started in the passive!
#13 The gore didn’t disturb me as much as the passive voice…
#16 I don’t have a huge problem with the lamb being killed, but the passive structure of the first sentence gave me pause, as did the woman not having a name.
Plus a few more follow-on comments which, while not mentioning passive per se, go with the idea that the first sentence is somehow flawed because of the use of ‘was splattered’.
So tell me: Does the first sentence use the passive voice?
But wait! Before you answer that, here’s an example. Read the following and identify every instance where the author uses the passive voice.
(Note: This is an extract from a student paper.* The goal is not to critique the actual essay, but to objectively identify the passive voice when it’s used.)
What Innocent never mentions in his writing is that the Church at the time faced more opposition than perhaps it cared to admit. Innocent didn’t enjoy the security that his writing made it seem. The goal of Henry VU had been to control Italy. The papacy did its best to prevent this by refusing to crown Henry emperor unless he promised not to control Italy. Henry was obviously very interested in doing so, but died before his plans could come to fruition. Innocent was quite brilliantly using the vacancy in the emperor’s throne to try to place the church back into assured power, by stepping in to control who would become pope, almost exactly what Henry VI had done in 1075.
Innocent was also reluctant to mention the position in which heresy was putting the church. It was relatively easy to stomp out a few flames of nonbelievers, but lately more and more people were opposing the official viewpoint in one way or another. Innocent saw his people taken from him by the Waldensian heresy and the Albigensian, or Cather, heresy. People began to realize that the church was corrupt, that church practices were more and more motivated by income. Heresies that were motivated by legitimated concerns were more likely to attract attention, but none of this was mentioned by Innocent in his writing on The Punishment of Heretics in 1198.
I’ll wait for you to read it a few more times.
Did you find all the instances where the passive voice was used?
Are you sure?
You might be interested to learn that there are only FOUR such instances in the entire extract. Yes, four.
And you probably didn’t even spot one of them.
So, back to the first sentence of Trespasses and Sins: Does the first sentence use the passive voice?**
* Source: ‘Confusion over avoiding the passive’ by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The webpage includes a comprehensive list of links to other discussions about the passive construction, as well as an analysis of which sentences do indeed use the passive voice.
** I’d also like to point out that I doubt I’d have got the answer right. In my defence, I’m well aware of my ignorance.