You've probably already read some of this week's wonderful journals on audience and beginning a story, and you're also probably wondering what exciting topic I've brought for you today. I suppose I'll tell you instead of keeping you in the dark.
Passive Voice vs Active Voice
I can see you're all excited.
To begin this article, I'll start by defining exactly what passive and active voice are.
With active voice, the agent (the person or thing carrying out the action) is the subject:
Harry ate six shrimp at dinner.
John opened the door.
Sue changed the flat tire.
There are two different types of passive voice constructions. In the first one, the agent is identified, but the person (or) thing toward which the action is directed is the subject of the sentence instead:
At dinner, six shrimp were eaten by Harry.
The door was opened by John.
The flat tire was changed by Sue.
In the second type of passive voice construction, the agent is never identified:
Six shrimp were eaten at dinner.
The door was opened.
The flat tire was changed.
If you're new to this, that might be a lot of information to take in all at once, but no one expects you to be an expert after only knowing information for one day.
There is a common misconception that the words "to be" is a clear indicator, but that isn't always true. Grammar Girl explains this concept quite well, so why should I explain when she's already done it quite brilliantly?
"A lot of people think all sentences that contain a form of the verb “to be” are in passive voice, but that isn't true. For example, the sentence 'I am holding a pen' is in 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."
Most writers think that using passive voice is wrong or incorrect. This isn't always so, but it is often a poor way to phrase your sentences. Sometimes, passive voice is awkward and clunky, and other times it's vague and unclear. Sentences written in passive voice are generally wordier than sentences written in active voice, so you can tighten up your writing in many places if you replace passive sentences with active ones.
Politicians use passive voice to intentionally obscure the idea of who is taking the action. Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mistakes were made,” when referring to the Iran-Contra scandal. Other examples of using passive voice for political reasons could include “Bombs were dropped,” and “Shots were fired.” If you watch the news, you should pay attention and listen for examples of passive voice.
There are times when the use of passive voice is encouraged. I'm going to draw on the wisdom of Grammar Girl again here:
"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 “The cookies were stolen,” the focus is on the cookies. In “Somebody stole the cookies,” the focus would be on the unknown somebody. Passive voice can be helpful if you want to create a sense of mystery in your sentence."
- How often do you use active voice and how often do you use passive voice?
- Have you ever chosen to use passive voice instead of active voice? Why?
- Do you unconsciously use one or the other more often?
Go through a recent piece that you have written, or a piece where you use a lot of passive voice, and change it to see if the sentences flow better when you use active voice.
Go through a recent piece that you have written, or a piece where you use a lot of active voice, and change it to see if the sentences flow better when you use passive voice.
I'll leave you with this amazing gif.