Misidentifying the Passive Voice

I have a client who’s specifically requested I point out gratuitous use of passive voice; more recently, we were chatting about good use of passive voice. (Think: “mistakes were made.”) When passive voice is used to excess, it can suck the life out of writing and be the bane of copyeditors and readers. Passive voice should be used when appropriate, however, because avoiding it can create tortured sentences that would deserve to be redlined. I recently read a passage that reminded me of all this:

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

After reading my email with the quote, the client replied, puzzled, asking what I was talking about. After re-reading, I realized that I had goofed up. This writing isolates the action from a person, but not from an actor. This sentence isn’t passive voice, and I had made an elementary mistake.

“The hand held a knife” isn’t passive voice at all, that would have to be “A knife was poised in the darkness.” Perhaps one could add “it was held by a hand.” The person would be held up by the creaky floor as well, I suppose.

Gaiman’s paragraph produces a similar effect to what passive voice can produce when used well, but it’s not passive voice even though it looks and smells kind of like it is. The hand doesn’t hold the knife on its own, the character (“the man Jack”) is holding the knife. But the opening image of the novel is that of a hand holding a knife, and I see it as a hand floating in the darkness. Camera pans out to the shadowy figure of the man Jack.


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