Understanding Active and Passive Voice in Writing
UNDERSTANDING ACTIVE AND PASSIVE VOICE IN WRITING
“TIME’s spell-check always admonishes me whenever I compose a sentence in the passive voice, a warning that is often ignored by me.” — Richard Corliss, film critic for TIME magazine
There are certain writing tips or admonishments that writers hear so often that they’ve become almost cliché:
“Show don’t tell.” “Write every day.” “Use the active, not the passive voice!”
You may have some idea what active and passive voices are, but how do you define them? And more importantly, why does it matter so much, and is that rule an absolute? If we should never use the passive voice, why does it exist?
Here’s what you need to know about writing in active or passive voice.
What is active voice?
“The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” — William Strunk, Jr., author of The Elements of Style
Webster’s online dictionary defines active voice as “the voice used to indicate that the grammatical subject of the verb is performing the action or causing the happening denoted by the verb.”
For example: “The girl rode the pony.” The subject of the verb (the girl) is performing the action denoted by the verb (rode). The sentence does not have to be simple, nor does the verb have to be grand or physical. Here are some other examples:
Tyler frequently wears colorful Hawaiian shirts.
Mankind took its first steps on the moon in 1969.
Abby wondered if Devin was going to ask her to the winter dance.
In each of these sentences, the subject of the verb performs the verb action. Tyler wears. Neil Armstrong took. Abby wondered.
You’ll hear some writers and writing instructors say to always use the active voice. It’s clear, straightforward, and strong. It gives a sense of authority to your writing.
When in doubt, it’s your best bet for good writing.
What is passive voice?
“Of writing in passive voice: Like the weather, people talk about it, but nobody seems to be doing much about either one.”— Chris Smith, senior lead communications specialist, Entergy Corporation
Webster defines the passive voice as “asserting that the grammatical subject of a verb is subjected to or affected by the action represented by that verb.”
If you switch my example from above to the passive voice it would be, “The pony was ridden by the girl.” Now, the pony is the subject of the verb, but instead of doing the action (riding) it is being affected by that action (was ridden). This leaves the girl, our former subject, dangling at the end of the sentence as if she has little importance.
The passive voice tends to use forms of the “be” verb such as “is,” “was,” or “has been.” They are one way of keeping an eye out for passive voice in your writing.
Let’s do the other examples:
Colorful Hawaiian shirts are frequently worn by Tyler.
Mankind’s first steps on the moon were taken in 1969.
If Devin was going to ask her to the winter dance was wondered by Abby.
The first two sentences work, but they lack the energy and directness of their active voice counterparts. The third sentence, with poor Abby, becomes muddled and awkward at best, but it’s not Devin’s fault. It’s the writer’s fault.
If you’re still not clear on how to detect passive voice, Rebecca Johnson, vice president for academic affairs at Marine Corps University, came up with a fun little idea when she was a professor of culture and ethics. “If you can add the phrase “by zombies” after the verb, your sentence has passive voice.”
Let’s try it!
“Tyler frequently wears…by zombies.” Nope. That doesn’t work at all.
“Hawaiian shirts are frequently worn…by zombies.” Look at that. You clearly have a sentence in passive voice (and fun, stylish zombies).
“Mankind took…by zombies.” Again, no.
“Mankind’s first steps on the moon were taken…by zombies.” Yikes, that works, and we have a new idea for a bizarre novel.
“Abby wondered…by zombies.” Even though “wondered” is not a vibrant, energetic verb, it’s still active.
“If Devin was going to ask her to the winter ball was wondered…by zombies.” It works, but we’re left wondering why the zombies are so concerned with Abby’s date prospects.
While these examples may seem a little absurd, you might be surprised at how frequently you slip into the passive voice without meaning to do it.
If you’re unsure whether you are writing in passive voice, try using a grammar check device like Grammarly or the Hemingway Editor to find out. It’s easy to fix and, in most cases, you will end up with better writing.
Why does active vs. passive voice matter?
“Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully.”— William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well
So now we get to the million-dollar question: “Why does active or passive voice matter so much?” Here are a few things to consider.
How It Affects Readers
Active voice exudes energy and directness. It helps your readers move along with the writing.
Passive voice usually has the opposite effect. It is wordy and indirect, which makes your readers slow down. It also makes your writing more difficult to follow as your readers try to figure out who did what to whom. As you’d expect, this means that your reader has to work harder, is less engaged, and therefore is more likely to simply stop reading.
No matter what you are writing, be it a thriller novel or a set of instructions for assembling a barbecue grill, you never want your reader to stop reading before the end!
How It Affects Characters
If you write fiction or creative non-fiction, your characters will suffer from too much use of passive voice as well.
Instead of being instigators of action, it will seem as if they are just along for the ride. They’re not doing stuff; instead, stuff is being done by them. This puts the focus on the action and not the character doing it.
How it Represents You as a Writer
Regardless of genre, from novels to ad copy, the word you’ll most frequently see used to describe passive voice in writing is “weak.” Every action comes across as wimpy, sloppy, and even insincere.
As the writer, you may come across the same way. Do you lack confidence in your writing? What are you trying to say?
Just say it instead of backing into it with the passive voice. Your readers will thank you.
Is it ever OK to use passive voice?
Yes! For one, it can break up the rhythm in your writing (in a good way) to add variety. There are also some instances where passive voice makes complete sense.
Let’s say you’re writing a story (true or not) about a boy and his dog. In the early pages, we learn that “Billy found the puppy, whimpering and wet, on the side of the road.” That’s great! We have a book about Billy, and we’ve learned that he found a puppy.
But if you change it:
“The puppy, whimpering and wet, was found on the side of the road by Billy.”
We now have a book about a puppy, and we’ve learned that a boy named Billy found him.
If the focus of your writing is on the recipient of the verb’s action rather than the character doing the verb, the passive voice will keep that focus where you want it. The key is to use it sparingly.
The trick, as with all elements of writing, is to consciously select your approach. Don’t let passive voice simply slip into your writing, or your writing will suffer for it.
Choose when and where you want to utilize it to maximize its effect and strengthen your work. Or, if you’re still in doubt, follow the advice of Stephen King:
“The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o’clock because that somehow says to him, “Put it this way and people will believe you really know.” Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write: The meeting’s at seven. There, by God! Don’t you feel better?” — Stephen King in “On Writing”
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