If you're like me, you've probably read your share of writing articles associating passive voice with weak writing. And it's true. The more you use active verbs, the better your writing will be most of the time. But if that's the case, why do writers continue to overwhelm their writing with passive sentences? Having edited my share of manuscripts with passive voice, I'm convinced that a lot of people don't understand the difference between passive and active voice enough to recognize it. So let's start there.

What Is Active Voice?

I'll begin with active voice since it is easier to explain and more direct. If a sentence is active, the subject performs the action, and the object, if there is one, is either acted upon or the product of the action. The following are a few simple examples:

Polly cleaned the attic.

Michael borrowed the book.

As you can see, the emphasis is on the performers rather than the recipient.

What Is Passive Voice?

In a passive sentence, the object or product of the action is the subject. Let's look at the sentences above in their passive form:

The attic was cleaned by Polly.

The book was borrowed by Michael.

The focus of these sentences has changed, and the recipients of the action are now in the subject position. But the attic and the book aren't doing anything.

However, it's easy to spot passive voice in simple sentences like the examples. Most writers construct more complex sentences where passive voice tends to hide.

Tracy battled the blustery snowstorm on the way to her stop and waited impatiently to be picked up by the bus.

As you can see, passive voice does not necessarily need to be in the main clause to plague a sentence.

Is Using Passive Voice Always Wrong?

One misunderstanding about passive voice is that it's an error. It isn't. More often than not, the passive sentences I've revised have been fine grammatically. Passive sentences, though, are not normally the best way to express your thoughts. After all, passive voice tends to be awkward and wordy, so you can tighten up your writing by using active voice instead.

However, at times passive voice can have some advantages. For instance, what if party taking action is unknown? Let's look at a common example:

Shots were fired.

Now, this can mean that either the writer knows who fired the shots and is protecting the guilty party or that there were no witnesses and the perpetrator escaped. If you rewrite this as an active sentences, you emphasize an unknown “someone”: Someone fired shots. The same applies if you are deliberately trying to emphasize the recipient or product of the action.

While there are times when passive voice can be useful, keep it to a minimum so your prose will be tight and active.


06/08/2012 07:40

This! Can I quote this article to people whose manusctipts I critique? I read so many good stories in my critique group, where all would be fine if only passive voice wouldn't be used in abundance.

I am guilty of that too, but I try and fight to keep passive voice out of my writing. This article will be bookmarked... ups... I mean, I am soo bookmarking this article ;>

06/14/2013 00:26

I am fed up with this English grammar. I have always confusion with active and passive voices, but the simplified explanation that you given above is very useful in knowing it better. Thank you for giving this simple and useful information. Good luck.


Leave a Reply.