Passive Voice v Active Voice

“Nothing drives me up a wall quicker than people writing in passive voice. How do you teach people to differentiate between passive and active voice and to avoid passive voice?”

The first step is to help people understand the difference between active and passive voice. Most writers believe they should avoid the passive voice, but few can define it or recognize it.

So, the first question, Active Voice how do you define it?

In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. A straightforward example is the sentence “Al loves Michelle.” Al is the subject, and he is doing the action: he loves Michelle, the object of the sentence.

The Marvin Gaye song “I Heard It through the Grapevine” is another example of active voice. The subject of the sentence “I” is the one who is doing the action. “I” is hearing “it,” the object of the sentence.

What Is Passive Voice?

In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, “Al loves Michelle,” the sentence would read, “Michelle is loved by Al.” The subject of the sentence becomes Michelle, but she isn’t doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Al’s love. The focus of the sentence has changed from Al to Michelle.

“It was heard by me through the grapevine,” is how to make the title of the Marvin Gaye song passive. You would say not such a catchy title, and you would be right.

Many people believe all sentences containing a form of the verb “to be” are in passive voice, but that isn’t true. For example, in the sentence “I am holding a pen” is active voice, but it uses the verb “am,” which is a form of “to be.” The passive form of that sentence is “The pen is being held by me.”

Notice that the subject, the pen, isn’t doing anything in that sentence. It’s not taking an action; it’s passive. One clue that your sentence is passive is that the subject isn’t taking a direct action.

Is Passive Voice Always Wrong?  Passive voice isn’t wrong, but it’s often a poor way to present your thoughts.

It is important to remember, passive sentences aren’t incorrect, though often they are not the best way to phrase your thoughts. Passive voice can be awkward and at times it’s vague. Passive voice is usually wordy. Replacing a passive sentences with an active one, will tighten your writing by

When you put sentences in passive voice, it’s easy to leave out the person or thing doing the action. For example, “Michelle is loved,” is passive. The problem with that sentence is that you don’t know who loves Michelle.

Ronald Reagan said, “Mistakes were made.” when he referred to the Iran-Contra scandal. Politicians are famous for useing passive voice. It a convenient way obscure the idea of who is taking the action. Other examples of passive voice for political reasons include, “Shots were fired,” and “Bombs were dropped.” Pay close attention and listen for examples of passive voice, when you watch the TV news reports or listen to radio news.

Also, a reader named Priscilla commented that businesses at time will use passive voice. It sounds better to write, “Your electricity will be shut off,” than “We, the electric company, will be shutting off your power.”

Crime Reports: Is Passive Voice OK?

Sometimes passive voice does have its advantages. For example, if you don’t know who is taking the action, then the person can’t named. It can be quite common, especially with crime reports. For example, a security guard submitting his report will write “The store was robbed,” this is because, if the thief isn’t captured right away, then nobody knows the robber identity when the report is files.

Can Passive Voice Work in Fiction Writing?

Passive voice is also sometimes useful in fiction writing. For example, if you were writing a mystery novel and you wanted to highlight missing cookies because they are central to the story, passive voice is the best option. It would make more sense to write, “The cookies were stolen,” instead of “Somebody stole the cookies.”

The difference is subtle, but in the passive sentence “My candies were stolen,” the focus is on the cookies. In active voice, “Somebody stole my candies,” focuses the attention would be on the unknown thief.

Passive voice can be helpful if you want to create a sense of mystery in your sentence, which is also a reason that it’s not usually a good choice when you’re writing nonfiction and you want your writing to be clear.

Passive Voice is Recommended for Science Writing?

Exception for passive are scientists. They are encouraged to write in passive voice. It lends a sense of objectivity to their writing. Passive voice takes them, their actions, and opinions out of the experimental results. I find it odd. It feels to as if they are trying to hide that real people did the experiments.

Passive voice has its place. In fiction it’s place is in dialogue. People speak in passive voice. “I already went to the store.” or  “She was here and hour ago.” The use of any “to be” verbs, was, were, had, etc, will render a sentence passive in most cases. In your exposition or narrative, passive voice should and must be avoided. Keep your narrative in active voice and the scenes as seen through your main character’s eyes. (POV) This moves your story along and keeps your audience involved. Passive voice slows down your narrative and can take your reader out of the story.

It can turn into author intrusion. (The author telling the reader what he or she thinks the reader needs to know.) That’s a subject for my next blog,