Understanding the ‘passive voice’ sentence structure


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Most of us learned early on in our English classes that passive voice is bad, bad, bad. We learned that it makes for boring reading and separates the subject from the action in a sentence. Although this is true for the most part, there is a place for the passive voice in Standard English and we can learn how to recognize it if we need to remove it from a sentence. You don`t have to make a pilgrimage to the grammar gods to learn how to do this (laughing).

As an aspiring writer, I used to get the ol` green line under my writing all the time: the dreaded “passive voice” alarm (it may be blue in Word 2013). I can remember reading articles, blog posts, and grammar books searching for a simple way to understand the use of passive voice in a sentence structure.  I would rearrange the sentence and still have the green lines under my verbiage and I could not figure out why. I know some of you grammarians out there may find this rather simple; however, many writers do not. They don`t understand passive voice and how to use it or get rid of it in their sentence structures.

A passive voice structure is very useful when the action in a sentence is more important than the subject. One of the other uses of passive voice, from a grammatical standpoint, is to recognize a transitive verb sentence: Sub+Verb+Dobj. In a passive voice structure the direct object becomes the subject and a form of the auxiliary verb “Be” is added to a past tense transitive verb.

Here is an example of a normal sentence structure with a transitive verb: My sister Shelly baked a birthday cake.

The subject is ‘Shelly,’ the transitive verb is ‘baked,’ and the direct object is the ‘cake.’ The other constituents in this structure are nouns acting in various other functions.

The syntactic formula for a passive voice sentence structure is to use a conjugation of the verb “Be” as an auxiliary and a past tense transitive verb.

Example: The birthday cake was baked by my sister Shelly.  In this example, “was” is a conjugation of the auxiliary verb “Be” and baked is a transitive verb in the past tense. The sentence is a bit awkward, but it does the trick as an example.

In the first sentence, my sister Shelly is more in focus to the reader than the cake she baked. In the second “passive voice” sentence, the birthday cake is more in focus to the reader. This is not the most important aspect of a passive voice sentence structure; however, it may help aspiring writers to recognize them more often and be rid of them more easily.

If you find that you have the dreaded “green line,” which indicates a passive voice sentence as Microsoft Word tries to correct your work, simply get rid of the “Be” auxiliary and make the main verb a present tense transitive verb. This will always work and it`s a simple rule to understand and follow. I hope that helps. WP

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