Here’s how my current favorite style manual, The Little, Brown Handbook, defines passive voice:
“The passive voice of the verb indicates that the subject receives the action of the verb. Create the passive voice with be, am, is, are, was,were, being, or been followed by the main verb’s participle.”
It gives this example: “Her latest book was completed in four months.”
The main point to take from that definition is that “the subject receives the action of the verb,” as opposed to the subject performing the action. To make the above example active, you would write it like this: “She completed her latest book in four months.”
Seems pretty straight forward, right?
Apparently not. I regularly run into writers who work from the assumption that any use of a “to be” verb constitutes the passive voice. This is not true! (See? That last sentence was active even though I used “is.”)
I offer this post in defense of the passive voice. Not only is it frequently misunderstood, it’s not always the wrong choice to make as a writer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it should be your “go to” sentence structure. But sometimes it makes sense to use it.
For example, I once worked with a novelist who was revising a first person POV YA sci-fi thriller. He tended to overuse the passive voice, constantly describing things that happened to his hero until the manuscript read like a journal of events the narrator simply witnessed. We worked a long time on rooting out all that passive voice and making his hero into the prime mover of his novel. But he had a chapter where his protagonist fell into the clutches of an antagonist with mind control powers. So I encouraged the author to go crazy with the passive voice in that part. It made sense, because his hero had lost all agency. The passive voice captured his protagonist’s predicament perfectly because he had become, quite literally, the puppet of the antagonist.
So, don’t fear the passive voice. Just make sure you use it deliberately. Like any grammatical construct, it deserves its place in your writer’s toolbox. But, like any tool, it can be dangerous if you don’t understand what it is or how it works.