What Is Passive Voice?

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 on the active vs passive voice, poring over articles on passive voice definitions, passive voice misuses and ways to fix it.

A lot of writers I know have had their run-ins with the passive voice. 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 active and passive voice, to passive voice examples and instances when using passive voice isn’t regarded as a heinous act of literarycide.

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.

dog.jpg

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 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 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).

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Here’s an excellent diagram produced by Your Dictionary. with a bunch more examples of active vs passive voice sentences.

Active vs passive voice examples diagram

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.

  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 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

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.

  • 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.

 

Extra resources on the passive voice

Thanks for reading this guide on the passive voice. 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 passive voice when you need to.

If you’re after more resources, I have some other writing guides on prose that you may find useful…

Prose: The Orwellian Approach

Showing vs Telling

Writing With The Senses

The Most Hated Writing ‘Rules’

9 Invaluable Tools for Writers