Thursday, February 3, 2011

What is passive voice?

Writers should write in active voice. Writing in passive voice usually happens accidentally, but a few writers intentionally write in passive voice because they feel it sounds richer. With only one or two exceptions, passive voice should never be used.

Active voice
To understand active voice, remember the following:

  1. The subject of a sentence is the performer of the verb.
  2. The verb is the action being performed.
  3. The object is the noun that the action is being performed on.
The active voice sentence pattern: subject - verb - object.
John popped the balloon.
Passive voice
The passive voice sentence pattern: object - being verb - verb - subject.

The balloon was popped by John.
In a sentence written in passive voice:
  1. The subject swaps places with the object (or is entirely dropped from the sentence) and many times lands in a prepositional phrase (technically a subject can't be in a prepositional phrase and this is one of many reasons passive voice is so messy).
  2. The passive verb phrase always contains two verbs: a state of being verb plus a verb ending in ed [past participle].
Diagramming the sentence is an excellent way to illustrate the negative effect passive voice has on a sentence. Specifically, passive voice marginalizes the "doer" of the action by demoting it to a bit part when it should be the star (was that as lame as it sounded?).

When to use passive voice
Never. With the following, very rare, exceptions.

1. The person who performed the action is unknown.
A gun was fired somewhere in the woods.
2. You want to intentionally move the attention of the reader to the object. Perhaps the "doer" is a victim, or the sentence really is about the object.
The amulet was touched by the witch, and the ancient artifact took yet another life.
However, the sentences above can still be rewritten in active voice, and probably be better sentences. It kind of depends on the writer's voice, but the safer choice is always active voice.
A gunshot popped in the woods.
The witch touched the amulet, and the artifact took yet another life.
How to avoid passive voice
When you write a sentence:

1. Begin your sentence (more specifically the independent clause) with the subject.
2. Write the verb second.

Subject then verb (active voice)
John fired the gun.
The witch touched the amulet.
Bill stole the money.

Verb then subject (passive voice)
The gun was fired by John.
The amulet was touched by the witch.
The money was stolen by Bill.

Notice that in a passive sentence the subject could be dropped entirely, thus adding to the mystery of who performed the action. The result is that we experience the action being performed on a passive object rather than seeing an active subject perform an action.

The gun was fired.
The amulet was touched.
The money was stolen.

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