So you think you can spot the passive voice? Bet you can’t.

Humorous PicturesA 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?**

A Student's Introduction to English Grammar by Rodney D. Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum* 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.


  1. JenB says:

    I like to avoid passive voice whenever possible, but I don’t think it’s “wrong” or bad. The problem with the First Page example is that the author opens with passive voice. Passive voice in the body of the ms is fine; passive voice in the opening line is weak. The point is that the first line could be stronger: “The lamb’s blood covered the wall” or “Sticky red splatters covered the wall. The lamb’s bleating shrieks…” etc.
    The commenters are correct to point this out. The first line isn’t awful, but it could be better. It could be stronger. It could pack a heavier punch. An active first sentence will almost always make a better and stronger impression than a passive first sentence, with very few exceptions.
    If a reader pauses after the first sentence to contemplate structure, then she has stopped reading your ms for a second or two after just one line. Fair or not, if the reader (editor, agent, etc.) can’t get through even the first paragraph without thinking “This would be so much better if only…”, then you have a problem. Read the comments, sort out the frequency and severity of the issues the comments address, suck it up, and make the revision(s).
    Teaching an author to avoid unnecessary passive structure is like teaching a singer to breathe from her diaphragm rather than from her chest. It doesn’t change the singer’s voice; it only makes it clearer and stronger.

  2. Kat says:

    JenB, this is a long reply. I’m not trying to be argumentative, but I’m super interested in what people think about passive voice, and why! Feel free to post an even longer rebuttal. :-D

    If a reader pauses after the first sentence to contemplate structure, then she has stopped reading your ms for a second or two after just one line.

    That’s one of my problems with this. Most people think they can spot the passive voice, and that it’s automatically wrong, and that in itself gives them pause. Vicious cycle.

    An active first sentence will almost always make a better and stronger impression than a passive first sentence, with very few exceptions.

    I question whether a sentence like “The lamb’s blood covered the wall” adds any more punch to the first sentence other than to avoid the appearance of using the passive voice. I don’t think it does. Agency in this case doesn’t really matter. No one is doing anything at the moment. The blood is just there.

    You might argue that “The lamb’s blood covered the wall” is more evocative, and I might agree, but that has nothing to do with the passive voice.

    Teaching an author to avoid unnecessary passive structure is like teaching a singer to breathe from her diaphragm rather than from her chest.

    I don’t believe passive voice is as fundamental to writing fiction as that. Using the passive voice is more like whether or not the singer/composer chooses to prolong a note. It’s neither right nor wrong to start off with a slow note. It all depends on the song and the artist, but if you do use it too often, people will fall asleep in the middle of your aria.

    Also, what constitutes an ‘unnecessary passive structure’ is subjective. I would argue that the reading the first sentence isn’t enough evidence to make that call. I’d argue that if your first thought is, Passive sentence! Not close enough to the action! then you’re criticising based on Strunk & White rather than because the text isn’t working. The critique should start with, This sentence doesn’t lure me into the story. Why not?

    Unfortunately, too often I feel that people say, This doesn’t lure me in, not because of any real problem with the text, but because of their preconceived notions about what looks like passive voice. This is what makes me tear my hear out in frustration, especially when they start asking writers to change their words based on misinformation.  (For example, many of the comments on the DA thread suggest removing ‘was’ to make the first sentence ‘active’. That’s not a simple change from active to passive. That’s a change in tense. So what they actually mean is ‘start the scene earlier as the blood being spattered’.)

  3. sharkcrow says:

    Being of the age where grammar wasn’t really taught in schools (if it was, it was at an age so young I can’t remember a thing of it… a verb is a doing word right? jk), I actually had no idea of the difference between active and passive voice until I started learning Latin. (Really NOT fun having to learn English grammar in order to get my head around the grammar rules of another language!)
    To be brutally honest, I don’t see why everyone is always up in arms when it is used. It’s like everyone is taught ‘passive voice = bad’. Personally, I LIKE the first sentence as it is – the detachment works for me. I wonder how many people outside literary / english major circles would even be able to tell the difference, and whether they have such an aversion to passive voice.

  4. Kathleen O'Reilly says:

    I like the first sentence as is, although if I were to make a change, I would change “against” to “across”.  There’s a poetry in the first sentence that people want to remove.   When the sentence is made more active, it reads like a horror novel instead of something more langourous.  I’m not sure what the author’s intent was, I was hoping they would weigh in on the project, but they never did.
    When I saw the DearAuthor piece, I kept biting my fingers to keep them away from the keys.   There were things that I didn’t like in the passage, some clunky moments, and not enough imagery for what should have been an awesome scene, but I liked it (until the character started on the walk).   Also, a lot of the readers seemed to assume it was a vamp book, but I don’t think so.  I got a ritualistic sort of vibe from it, more historical or alternative universe than vamp.  I wish someone would do a ritualistic medieval, because I think it could be way cool…  Anyway, rambling…
    If you read some of William Safire’s (RIP) stuff on passive voice, many times politicians use it to avoid the inference of guilt. “Mistakes were made.” It’s a deliberately distancing sort of lexicon.  Considering the rest of the passage, and the character’s heavy conscience, I wonder if the author was pulling a little of that, either consciously or subconsciously.
    And as a last aside, the opening line from The Graveyard Book, a Newberry Award Medal book: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

  5. SonomaLass says:

    Passive voice is a strange thing; some people don’t know what it is, others think they do but really don’t. As with all language, it serves a purpose and therefore has a place in some writing, although using it to disguise agency/shift responsibility is ethically repugnant to me.
    I worked as an editorial consultant with an executive who had been taught the standard “passive voice is evil and wrong” lesson.  She saw it when it wasn’t there, and she wanted it rooted out even if the construction seemed (in my professional opinion) appropriate in that context.  Overkill!  But then again, I worked with two execs who both used passive FAR too much — pages of reports in which no one DID anything.  So I’ve seen the ugly extremes at work in business writing, and I can tell you that they both stink.
    Fiction is different, of course; characters are agents, and most of the time I think readers want a sense of immediacy, and active voice generally serves better.  But for lyrical/descriptive passages, or when there really is no agent to reference, passive may be the better choice.  I trust a good writer to make that call, rather than any stringent set of editorial rules.  In fact, some of the worst (and funniest) constructions I’ve ever seen are the corrections suggested by Word when its grammar check function notes the use of passive voice.  Hilarity often ensues!
    Thought-provoking post, Kat — ta!

  6. Kat says:

    sharkcrow, you bring up a good point. A few of the comments on DA talk about how confronting the blood/gore is, so perhaps the author intended for it to be a bit more distant.

    Kathleen, languorous, YES! It bothered me that some of the changes that the majority of commenters were recommending would, in my opinion, tamper with the author’s voice. SonomaLass’s comment struck a chord with me: I crave lyricism in my romances.

    SonomaLass, there’s nothing worse than an ultracrepidarian. (I only know that word because I am one.) I’m not surprised that the execs wanted  ownership of nothing. Ye olde PYA at work, plus they probably want to avoid any inadvertent legal consequences if something went wrong.

    I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one bothered by this. (Ha, see what I did there?)



  7. SarahT says:

    “The lamb’s blood was splattered against the wall.”
    Why can’t this be described as a sentence in which the past participle is employed as an adjective? That’s how I read it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not passive voice as it is a statement of fact, not a description of what was done to the lamb’s blood.
    That something was done to the lamb to cause the splattered blood is clear. But there’s a significant difference between something being done to the lamb resulting in its splattered blood and something being done to the blood causing it to splatter.

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