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The passive voice was something of a mystery to me when I first began writing. Once I learned about it, panic consumed me like realising I’d not locked the front door while boarding a plane. Everything I’d written up to that point was riddled with it, dripping from sentences like phlegm. No wonder the rejections piled up.
“Why does this matter?” a question I often asked myself at the height of my frustrations. Unfortunately it does matter; it matters a lot. And the reason’s simple: prose written in a passive voice is slow and heavy going and provokes nothing but boredom. It’s a sign of the lazy writer. Whereas prose written in the active voice is more entertaining, energetic and full of life. Things are happening there and then, the reader seeing it all unfold.
I really struggled to grasp the concept at first, and the reason for why, I believe, is because of where I’m from. The day-to-day language people from Liverpool use is full of passive words. So I embarked upon a quest to defeat the passive voice, and below I’ll share the things I’ve learned, as well as covering the instances when it’s in fact okay to use.
Let’s begin with the easy one. A sentence which uses the active voice is one in which the subject of that sentence is performing an action (i.e. a verb). Such sentences are more direct and vigorous, and as William Strunk Jr. said in The Elements of Style (a must read), it “makes for forcible writing”. Examples of the active voice:
Layla fired the rifle.
Conchita ran away from the tarantula.
Emmanuel pulled back the curtain.
In each sentence, the subject (in these instances the person), is carrying out an action. Conchita ran, Layla fired, Emmanuel pulled. The verb, or the noun, follows immediately after the subject. That’s the rule. Remember it.
The subject isn’t restricted to just people. You could have animals or objects, like a car or a boat. Anything that performs an action.
The boulder rolled down the hill.
Keep this in mind: active voice = action.
Take a deep breath; here we go. A sentence written in the passive voice is one in which the action is being done to the subject by something else. For example:
The curtain was pulled back by Emmanuel.
The rifle was fired by Layla.
In each of the above sentences, the subject (the curtain and rifle) is having the action done to it.
Notice how the passive versions add unnecessary words to each sentence. Not good. As Strunk says:
“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
Notice too how much duller these sentences are. Never has the word ‘was’ seemed so evil. There’s a few more passive words to watch out for:
- To be
I made up an acronym to aid recall (it’s the best I could come up with; they’re hard letters to work with!):
“The name’s Witab, Wabab Witab.”
Ways to combat the passive voice
- Re-structuring sentences. If you find you have a sentence with the above words in, try restructuring it. Look to use a better verb, one that says everything you need to in just a word (they’re out there, somewhere, though sometimes it feels like the hunt for Atlantis). An excellent example from Strunk:
Passive: There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
Active: Dead leaves covered the ground.
Twelve letters to just five! That’s serious news.
Another thing to keep in mind when restructuring passive sentences is the subject. You could insert a subject if a sentence is lacking one. It’s an effective move. When doing so, try and be specific; it makes for more forcible, convincing writing. Another thing you could do is move the subject to the beginning of the sentence. So in the above example ‘dead leaves’ is moved to the beginning to become the subject. Another example courtesy of Brandon Sanderson:
Passive: The duet was sung by Mary and Joe.
Active: Mary and Joe sung the duet.
- Combining shorter sentences. Another thing you can try is combining two short sentences into a long one to eradicate the passive word. For example:
Passive: He walked across the street. It was wide, busy with traffic.
Active: He walked across the wide street, busy with traffic.
When it’s fine to use the passive voice
Sometimes it’s necessary to use the passive voice, such as when you’re looking to slow the pace, reduce tension, or prolong narrative. Passive voice is also fine to use in dialogue. As mentioned above, my day to day language is full of passive words. This is how people speak in reality, so the occasional passive word in your dialogue will give it a more genuine feel.
“I was going to come over, but I wasn’t sure whether you were home.”
One question to ask yourself when constructing a sentence is whether the subject needs to act at all. For example: “Gideon is a doctor.” The subject, Gideon, isn’t doing anything in this sentence so there’s no need to use the active voice. Like in this one too: “The sofa was comfy.” Again, the sofa isn’t doing anything. So in such instances passive voice is fine to use. It’s a question of necessity. Does this sentence require the active voice?
Here’s a fine little creation I came across—a list of active verbs. Many thanks to Writers Helping Writers for this. You can download it here:
Thanks for reading. Hope it helps! Next week I’ll be exploring word building. If you want to be notified when it goes live, subscribe to my mailing list!