Getting To Grips With Passive Voice

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A few weeks ago, I published the results of a bit of research looking at the writing ‘rules’ loathed most by writers. Topping that list was the rule: ‘never use the passive voice.’

Why did it score so high? A couple of comments from participants summarise the feelings nicely:

“Passive voice is definitely the one I struggle with the most, I usually run my articles and books through Hemingway before submitting to try and cut some of it out. It just feels natural to write/talk that way.”

I hate the generic “never use passive voice” advice, it’s such bull. Passive voice has a place, it’s just plain lazy to simply avoid it rather than learn it, it’s a tool like any other.”

What can we take from these comments?

i) it’s not a straightforward ‘rule’ to understand, and;

ii) this lack of understanding can lead to a fear of it.

So here’s a bit of a crash course on the passive voice. It may be a bit of a bumpy ride but I assure you we’ll come out unharmed.

What’s your view on the passive voice? Is it something you’ve been told ‘never’ to use? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

 

The Active / Passive Conundrum

A definition is always a handy place to start.

The Active Voice

An active sentence is one in which the subject of that sentence is performing an action (a verb).This action is usually received by an object, which comes after the action in the sentence’s construction.  

Let’s look at an example:

Layla (subject) nocked (verb/action) the arrow (object).

Dave (subject) stood (verb/action) in dog shit (object).

In each sentence, the subject—a noun—is carrying out an action. Layla nocked, Dave stood. The verb follows immediately after the subject, and the object usually after the verb. Essentially, the subject is carrying out an action within that sentence. A way you can remember this, though it’s not a universal rule, is S.V.O.—Subject-Verb-Object.

dog.jpg

 

The Passive Voice

A sentence written in the passive voice is usually one in which the action is being done to the subject. The subject performs the action but the latter often comes after the former. As well as this, the object tends to come before the action (verb).

A role reversal of sorts in comparison to the active voice. You could remember it like this, though again it’s not a hard and fast rule: O.V.S—Object-Verb-Subject.

The subject of the sentence is therefore passive—it’s not doing anything, save for sitting at the end of the sentence looking pretty. So for example:

The king’s rallying cry (object) was not responded to by (verb/action) anyone (subject).

The entire city (object) was flattened (verb/action) by the tsunami (subject).

The active versions of each of these sentences would be:

Nobody (subject) responded to (verb) the king’s rallying cry (object).

The tsunami (subject) flattened (verb) the entire city (object).

So What’s Wrong with the Passive Voice?

The passive voice gets a bad rap. From my experience, it seems ‘active’ prose is preferred by publishers and agents. The question has to be asked: why? I can see two key reasons.

  1. Prose written in the active voice is more immediate and immersive, grabbing the reader and refusing to let go. As writers, we want to grab the reader’s attention, and as readers, we want to be grabbed. Writing in this style is proactive and forcible. The subject of each sentence is carrying out an action.
  2. Prose written in the passive voice can use up a lot more words. While this post is an examination of writing ‘rules’ and why we don’t like them, I have to admit I am a fan of Orwell’s guidelines, particularly number three: if it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out. Let’s take an example from before:

Passive:        There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

Active:           Dead leaves covered the ground.

    Twelve words to just five.

leaves.jpg

In Defence of the Passive Voice

You may have read advice telling you never to use the passive voice. Here’s a better bit of advice: never listen to a rule that begins with the word ‘never’.

This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely disregard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” William Strunk Jr.

It’s a tool, like any other in the writer’s arsenal, and it has its own purpose. You wouldn’t use a hammer to cut a piece of timber in two.

Passive voice is at times necessary. One such instance is when a particular word is required to be the subject of the sentence. Let’s take an example from Strunk:

            The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed today.

            Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

If you’re writing about the dramatists of the Restoration, then the top sentence would be suitable, meaning use of passive voice becomes necessary. If the sentence seeks to discuss modern readers, then the latter example works. So in short, the subject of the sentence can dictate which voice to use.

Ask yourself: does this sentence need to be active? For example, some people may construe this sentence as passive: “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. It can be a question of necessity. Does this sentence require the active voice?

When using the passive voice, Strunk recommended avoiding constructing sentences in which one passive phrase relies on another. For example:

               Gold was not allowed to be exported.

In this instance, the passive phrases are ‘was’ and ‘to be’.  The problem with this type of sentence construction, according to Strunk, is the use of subject (gold) to express the entire action, rendering the verb (exported) useless beyond completing the sentence. An alternative construction could be:

            The export of gold was prohibited.

 

The Passive Voice and Dialogue

My day to day language is full of passive words. It’s reached the extent where I’m pretty much conditioned to use it when I speak. If you listen to others, the same applies. To achieve more natural sounding dialogue, the occasional passive word may well help.

             “I was going to come over, but I wasn’t sure whether you were home.”

If I’d typed this, I’d edit it. Saying it is another matter. I invest much less effort in speech, as those who’ve struggled to understand my mumbling will attest to.

 

Making Passive Prose Active

If you feel like you use a lot of passive voice and want to use more active, there are a few things you can do.

A good starting point is to look out for the following words, though I must warn you that sentences containing these words may indicate passive voice; it is not conclusive. Other factors must be considered, for example, the subject of the sentence, as outlined above.

  • Been
  • Am
  • Be
  • Are
  • Was
  • To be
  • Were
  • Is
  • Are
  • Being

 

Re-structuring Sentences

Keeping the basic formula for active sentences in mind, you could try restructuring your sentences but remember this is just the typical structure. Some active sentences may break this rule.

Another thing to try is to find a better verb, one that says everything you need to in just one word. They’re out there, somewhere, though sometimes it feels like the hunt for Atlantis. It’s such a good example, here it is a third time:

Passive:          There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

Active:             Dead leaves covered the ground.

 

Introducing or Moving a Subject

An effective move is to insert a subject if a sentence is lacking one or to move a subject to the beginning of a sentence. For example:

Passive:           The duet was sung by Mary and Joe.

Active:              Mary and Joe sang the duet.

 

Passive:              The arrows were loosed.

Active:                The archers loosed their arrows.

 

Resources

Examples are a great way to reinforce something. This sheet contains a bunch. Practice writing out your own sentences too, both active and passive.

Active v Passive voice example sheet

https://www.yourdictionary.com/index.php/pdf/articles/192.activevspassivevoice.pdf


Well, I hope this has been of some use to you. It’s by no means a comprehensive analysis of the passive voice, but it’s a start. If you enjoyed it, why not stay in touch by filling out the form below. Everyone who subscribes receives a free ebook on the craft of writing, lists of publishers for short and long fantasy fiction, two free short stories, and a list of book reviewers. I usually send a newsletter once a week with links to articles I think may be of interest too.

 

 

 

23 thoughts on “Getting To Grips With Passive Voice”

  1. The sentence Gideon is a doctor is not passive, and nothing any internet “writing guru” or whatnot says can change that. I would prefer to believe that people who say otherwise are simply misinformed, but alas, I suspect some of them are knowingly attempting to create their own definitions of writing terms. (I do not attempt to understand their motivations for doing so; it’s not my responsibility to understand why idjits do idjit things.)

    Surely those who consider themselves well-informed about good firction-writing practices can recognize the difference between ‘This sentence doesn’t excite me’ and ‘The subject of this sentence is receiving the action of the verb rather than performing it.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s more likely they’re misinformed than deliberately misleading. It is a tricky area to wrap your head around. It took me a while! And I think that’s part of the problem. Patchy understandings. Thanks for reading and commenting! Appreciate it

      Like

    2. I’m with you on that matter because I believe passive voice also has a lot to do with feeling. The phrase “Gideon is a doctor” is just as passive as the phrase

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    3. I’m with you on that matter because I believe passive voice also has a lot to do with feeling. The phrase “Gideon is a doctor” is just as passive as the phrase “Gideon performed medical care”, but somehow we got in a consensus where the latter is always considered better than the former.

      Although we can say there are some rules to label something as passive voice, the bad news is that one can only get to grips with passive voice through constant reading and writing. (← I doubt anyone felt slowed down by this phrase although it’s terribly passive by definition.)

      The best way to tame the passive voice urge is by writing every motherf day.

      Like

  2. Richie, after last week’s débacle, dare I even TRY to leave a comment?
    It felt like everything I tried got censored/deleted/fried by radioactive waves in the ether whenever I hit “send”!
    Which annoyed me, because I thought my comments on Passive Voice (AND the Subjunctive Mood!!) were valid!
    Cheers
    Paul

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In brief:
    Ignoring the Passive Voice is like a one-legged man entering an @@@@@-kicking contest.
    You are DELIBERATELY ignoring 50% of the Conjugation of any Verb.
    Those of us who had 8 years of Latin lessons administered by the kindly hands (and ferulas) of the Jesuits will appreciate that there are times when ONLY the Passive Voice will suffice in the sentence you wish to write.
    Subjunctive Mood (as opposed to “Voice”)
    Somedtimes incorrectly called Conditional/Future Conditional.
    Certain European languages use the Subjunctive far more than we do. If you wqant to shut a Frenchman up, you can either (i) forbid use of the Subjunctive or (ii) Tie his hands together, preferably behind his back.
    “There is a Time for Every Purpose under Heaven” [Ecc.v.3]
    This also applies to the correct grammatical use of Verb Forms we might not use often, but still NEED n occasion!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I think the main problem with ‘Gold was not allowed to be exported.’ is that it’s incredibly clunky – if people read things they write aloud to themselves, they’d hear how bad they sound and find a better way! This is a very comprehensive article, Richie – well done for tackling it! I particularly agreed with your two reasons why agents and publishers prefer the active to the passive, but would add that the passive often involves the use of the continuous tenses (I am drinking my coffee) which are marked by the -ing ending, and are said to weaken the text. The same ending is found (note the passive voice here!) on gerunds (e.g. ‘…the living is easy…’), which publishers and agents also object to, and which are nouns formed from a verb. A gerundive is an adjective formed from a verb, e.g. ‘to love’ becomes ‘loving’ in this situation. As grammar wasn’t taught much in schools when some of us were growing up, most of my grammar has been learned by comparing English with French, German and Latin, and knowing how we would express a particular meaning. It’s very clear that these things can be very confusing for a lot of writers, as I know from the workshops I run. And publishers’ and agents’ requirements seem very arbitrary! The thing to be aware of is that the way we learn to write at school isn’t the same way the publishing community want us to write – it’s completely different and a lot of people get bogged down at the submission interface because of this. I personally think, as several other people have remarked, that the key to dealing with all these things is to be aware of publishers’ objections, and when you give your work a final check over, these are the kind of things you should look at. And it will come down to individual examples of usage: in one situation the “bad habit” will look completely natural and you should keep it (especially in speech) and in another it will seem wrong and you’ll need to look at it again. Be aware of publishing “rules” and check whether they are appropriate in individual sentences or not. There is a lot of information out there about these rules, but there are instances when it’s OK to break them. If it works, it’s OK. If not, stick to the rule. And if you aren’t sure about whether it works or not, try it out on one or more friends, especially if they know what they’re doing with grammar.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Helen. I’m glad you found it useful! I agree, it is a terribly clunky sentence. You’re spot on with your third reason too and again on rules. It’s always so important to check them, and unfortunately for us, the rules can be wildly different! Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Like

  5. A good attempt to clarify a complex issue. However, the way you describe the grammatical layout of passive verbs is not exactly correct. As I mentioned in my comments elsewhere, the important thing to consider when assessing active and passive sentences is the subjects. In almost all English sentences, the subject comes at the beginning. This is also true of passive sentences. For example, in the sentence “The city was flattened by the tsunami”, “the city” is indeed still the subject (not the object, the “be” verb does not have objects), and “was” is the verb. An easy way to confirm this is to drop the “tsunami,” the supposed subject, and see what happens. Proper English sentences cannot exist without a subject (some forms, such as imperatives, can drop a clearly implied subject, but it is still there). Since the sentence “The city was flattened” works on its own, we know that “the city” is the subject. “By the tsunami” is instead a prepositional phrase. It is this very misconception about subjects that fuels a lot of the hate of passive voice. “Passive voice is bad because the subject is at the end not the front”–and such. No, passive voice begins with a subject; it is simply the actor that comes at the end. This is important, as in my previous comment, if you want to keep the reader’s eye on the same subject instead of dropping three or four different subjects into one paragraph. In such a case, passive voice is immensely useful. Here’s a good page that diagrams the grammar of passive sentences: https://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/verb-types.html

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  6. I’m inclined to feel the rule advice givers are really reaching for is ‘cultivate an active writing voice’, which is a little different than simply avoiding the passive. Some new writers overuse hedges instead of the passive, resulting in a similarly weakened style. ELT teachers like to encourage the use of the passive when the agent is unidentifiable or unimportant to the story:

    ‘Someone stole my bike’ is not manifestly superior to ‘My bike was stolen’
    ‘The room was cleaned this morning’ vs ‘The maid cleaned the room this morning.’

    The introduction of unidentified subjects is appropriate if they appear later in the story, but not if they don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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