Welcome to this guide to the active vs passive voice. It’s a popular grammatical subject, and we’ll cover it in detail, looking at plenty of examples to help our understanding. Ultimately, we’ll provide the answer to the question—what is passive voice in writing?
Passive voice is something I struggled with a lot when I first began writing fiction. In the peak of my frustrations, after climbing up onto the roof of my house and screaming into the wind ‘what is passive voice?’, I would clamber back down and scour the web, reading every morsel I could find.
A lot of writers I know have had their run-ins with it too. It almost seems to be a rite of passage for writers to have to tackle it. This guide will give you the tools to help you. Based on everything I’ve learned about active and passive voice over the years, you’ll find everything from definitions of passive and active voice, to passive voice examples and instances when using it isn’t regarded as a heinous act of literarycide.
The Definition of Passive Voice
Passive voice arises occurs when the person or object of a sentence experiences an action rather than them performing it. This means that they become the subject of the sentence.
What is Passive Voice in Writing?
When it comes to writing, passive voice refers to the structure of sentences, as we’ve seen above. In modern fiction, the active voice is preferred over the passive due it its ability to create immersive and gripping storytelling.
Active vs passive voice
Not long ago, I published the results of a bit of research looking at the writing ‘rules’ loathed most by writers. Topping that list was ‘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.
Let’s aid that understanding and banish any fear.
What is active voice?
A definition is always a handy place to start.
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 of active voice:
Layla (subject) nocked (verb/action) the arrow (object).
Dave (subject) stood (verb/action) in dog crap (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.
What is 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 this passive voice construction like this, though again it’s not a hard and fast rule: O.V.S—Object-Verb-Subject.
Examples of passive voice
The subject of the sentence is therefore passive—it’s not doing anything, just receives the action. 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 voice 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).
Here’s an excellent infographic produced by Your Dictionary. with a bunch more examples of active vs passive voice sentences.
What’s wrong with 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 the 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.
How to fix passive voice misuse
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.
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.
- To be
So if you’ve ever wondered is to be passive voice, there’s your answer.
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. Ultimately, it’s just a matter of playing around with the word order to see what works best.
Another thing to try is to find a better form of the 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.
Using A Grammar Checker
If you’re still having difficulty—and trust me, I’ve been there—a good way to learn is by using tools that will point out each passive sentence in your writing and suggest fixes.
Luckily, there are lots of great grammar checkers on the web. Perhaps the best is Grammarly, though it’s passive voice checker is only available to premium users.
The free tool Hemingway also detects and highlights passive voice. Seeing where you’ve gone wrong can help you identify what to look out for, so you can then focus your efforts on fixing it by moving subject position and the like.
Extra resources on the passive voice
Thanks for reading this guide. Hopefully, if someone now asks you, ‘what is passive voice?’, you can tell them. Not only that, you can stun their minds with your grasp of active voice, your depth of passive voice examples, and your tricksy ways to fix issues when you need to.
If you’re after more resources, I have some other writing guides on prose that you may find useful…
- How To Write Great Prose
- Great Examples of the 5 Senses In Writing
- The 10 Most Hated Writing Rules
- Another great passive voice guide by the University of Carolina
- Another nifty guide by the University of Washington
- What Is A Prepositional Phrase?
- What Is The Effect Of Foreshadowing?
- Writing tips
- Hated writing rules
- How to write romance scenes
- How to format a manuscript
- Mental health in fantasy books
- 8 ways to kickstart your writing career
- What is characterization?
- How to write strong female characters
- How to edit
- What is StoryOrigin?
- How to plot a story
- 4 ways to begin writing a novel
- How to plan a story
- How to plan a novel
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Thanks for reading this active vs passive voice guide.