Manipulating Verbs: Active and Passive Constructs in Fiction

Black and white scribble art depicting a hand holding a calligraphy pen, scratching on a sheet of paper. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/735634920356474407/

Throughout this past semester, I became interested in the difference between active and passive voice and how they can determine the tone of fictional writing. Due to this interest, I decided to take one paragraph from Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and one paragraph from White Tiger written by Kylie Chan to analyze each author’s use of active vs. passive voice to compare and contrast how it affected the tone of their work.


Before analyzing these paragraphs, it is important to know the grammatical difference between active and passive voice. Often called the verb expansion rule, the formula for active voice is T(M) (have+ -en) (be + -ing)MV. In this formula, T stands for tense (past/ present), M stands for Modal Auxiliary, which occupies the opening slot of this formula and is usually a verb marker. Examples of these include forms of “have”, “be” and words such as “will” and “shall”. The (have + -en) and (be + -ing) parts of the formula are optional in active voice, but mean there are variations of “have” or “be” in their “-en” or “-ing” form. The MV part of the formula stands for the main verb. An example would be “have eaten” or “will be eating”, “eat” being the main
verb.


While passive voice is different from active, the formulas are very similar, the passive voice’s formula being: T(M) (have + -en) (be + -ing) be + -en MV. The abbreviations are the same as that in the active voice, the only difference being that the part not in parenthesis, “be + -en” is mandatory. This “be + -en” means that the word “be” combined with the past form of the main verb is required. An example is “should have been finished”.


Although these two formulas appear similar, when applied in writing, they can strongly alter the tone of the work. In the paragraph from Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel, the entire paragraph is in active voice with the exception of the first sentence: “The only pawnshop in the town of Night Vale is run by the very young Jackie Fierro.” A reader is able to tell it is passive by looking at “is run by”. Returning to the formula, this phrase matches the required be + -en because it is a “be” verb followed by the past tense “run”, making it passive voice and setting the tone for the remainder of the paragraph.


However, when turning to the paragraph chosen from White Tiger, the active voice first sentence has a completely different tone. “I shrugged, and opened the large compendium of Chinese gods.” Different from passive, a reader is able to see the active nature through the use of past tense + the main verb, which is the case with both verbs used in this sentence. While the optional variants for the active voice formula are not present, neither is the mandatory “be + -en” for the passive.


The difference in tones created by the first sentence in each of these paragraphs is strongly due to the differences created by active vs. passive voice. By looking at these differences and applying them to fictional works, readers are able to see how well writers can control the tone of their writing and work in the direction they want to go. By merely manipulating which verbs go into the sentence and what their placement and tense are, writers can set the specific tone they want their readers to pick up on.

About Me

My name is Lexys Gutierrez and I am a student in the English Literature and Language Master’s program at Saint Mary’s University. I am slated to graduate next semester. I am also a mom of soon to be two children and I work in Campus Recreation at Saint Mary’s University as a Supervisor and Head Lifeguard. Some of my favorite hobbies include reading and writing. After I graduate and have more free time, I hope to begin working on some writing projects I have been wanting to do and one day publish them.

Sources
1) Cranor, Jeffrey and Fink, Joseph. Welcome To Night Vale: A Novel. Harper Perennial,
2015.
2) Chan, Kylie. White Tiger. Harper Voyager, 2006.
3) Kolln, Martha, Gray, Loretta and Salvatore, Joseph. Understanding English Grammar.
Pearson Education, Inc. 2016.

Published by modcasters

We’re a group of graduate students studying English Literature and Language on a mission to discuss literature, provide access to those on the deafness and/or blindness spectrum, and rock mustachios.

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