Monday, August 23, 2010

Uses of the Passive Voice

One of the first rules we learn as writers is to avoid the passive voice in our prose. It is the active voice that is the gem of fiction writing. The active voice charges our prose with vitality and immediacy. The passive voice can sound bland by comparison. But there is no need to run screaming from the passive voice. It has its uses.

The passive voice can sound more authoritive and less demanding. For example: “Swimming is not allowed here.” This passive voice is a statement of fact and gains authority because of the lack of emotion attached. By comparison: “You must not swim here.” This active voice adds a demanding tone. It might work for a mother scolding her child, but if that’s not the tone you want to achieve, then the passive might be your answer.

The passive voice changes the emphasis in a sentence. For example, “1000 plastic balls are needed to fill the pit.” The emphasis here is on the number of plastic balls. Compare with, “The pit needs 1000 plastic balls to fill it.” The pit is the emphasis in this active sentence.

The passive voice de-emphasises the cause of the action. For example, “Isabella was attacked at midnight.” We may not wish to reveal who attacked poor Isabella. Sometimes we wish to emphasise the action more than the person behind the action. For example, “The cure for the common cold was discovered in 2051.” The name of the person behind the discovery may not be important to your story.

The passive voice hides blame. For example: “The totals were placed in the wrong column.”

Can you think of other examples of acceptable use of the passive voice? Do you try to avoid all instances of the passive voice? What are some things you look for when deciding to use a passive voice?

30 comments:

  1. it's a well known fact that English people tend to use passive a lot, maybe even too much. It's sometimes even difficult for us literary translators because many languages don't use passive that frequently, so we just switch your passive sentences into active ones :)

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  2. Dezmond, I didn't know that. Very cool :) I agree we tend to use the passive too much, but it's also good to know when it's acceptable.

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  3. I have trouble wrapping my brain around the whole active/passive thing, but one gem my brilliant crit partner told me is that passive is better when the action is only intent or in the past...
    Johnny would have liked to have another cookie, but his mother said no.
    and that active is better when there's an actual action taking place.
    Johnny wanted another cookie, so he snuck into the kitchen and stole one.
    i'm not sure if i interpretted that right, but it kinda makes sense to me...

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  4. Great points made here about passive vs active. I hadn't thought about it from that point of view and will incorporate this angle into my English lessons.
    Thanks :-)

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  5. Vic, a cheat way of checking for the passive voice (if you use Word) is to go to Tools/Options/Spelling & Grammar and in the writing style drop down list, check Grammar & Style. If you click on the settings button you'll see everything it picks up on and you can adjust those settings to your own needs. Tricksy. Having said that, of course, I should stress that this nifty tool shouldn't always be relied on.

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  6. Charmaine, oh cool. I'm glad I've helped :)

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  7. Great post Lynda. I have tried to banish all passive voice from my writing, but I see now where I might be able to work some in to good effect.

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  8. Melissa, it's a good practice to take out the majority of your passive sentences -- as you have done. It's too easy to let the passive take over.

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  9. Passive voice is more comfortable to write, but not always more comfortable to read. I have to keep an eye out for it when I edit.

    On a side note, I just discovered your blog and absolutely love the photos! I'm a travel nut- your pictures have me drooling on my keyboard!

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  10. Hi Stephanie, welcome to my blog. You are the first to comment on the photos. It's not always easy to match a pic with a post too. The last three were taken during a trip to South Korea. It's an amazing country. I'd love to go back one day.

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  11. I catch more passive sentences in my first draft writing now - but I still find a fair amount when I go through and do that first edit round!

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  12. The Word grammar checker gizmo has the worst advice in this regard.

    "The toes caught the fox in the trap."

    I had written "The fox was caught by the toes in the trap."

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  13. Depends what I'm trying to say, of course. Most times, I will edit passive voice out.

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  14. Jemi, yep, the passive is a sly thing. It makes its way into our writing and hopes it doesn't get noticed ;)

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  15. Blythe, hahaha, that's hilarious! That's why we can't rely on it ;) But at least it pointed out a passive sentence. lol.

    M Pax, yep, that's exactly right. Good to edit out, but soemtimes it is necessary and effective.

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  16. You always have great tips when it comes to writing! Thanks for sharing. God bless.

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  17. It's near impossible to eliminate the passive voice. You gave some great examples of when it's needed. I do urge my clients to cut, when possible, the active voice. The active voice involves the reader in the action. But eliminating it is not always possible or even desirable.

    I'd like to eliminate the word "actually." Have you noticed that it seems to be a viral word infecting everything we say?

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  18. Rcubes, thanks so much :)

    Helen, actually, yes ;) I write actually a lot in my "conversational" voice eg blog comments. But I get rid of it in my WIP -- actually AND very.

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  19. excellent examples. I just edtied a few memoirs today and found them filled with them!

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  20. I generally don't like the passive voice because it is usually more wordy and basically implies that the action just happened. No one performed it. Great point that it removes blame! This can absolutely help to deflect attention or make the speaker or author appear less defensive.

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  21. Great examples, Lynda. This post will help me with my creative writing classes. I should be more careful when I am writing. Sometimes the passive voice creeps in.

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  22. Terri, they are sneaky things aren't they? ;)

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  23. Loveable_homebody, absolutely. When used incorrectly the passive voice gets extremely wordy and slows down the reader.

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  24. Rachna, the passive voice has a way of doing that... but that's what editing is for ;)

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  25. Break rules and guidelines rather than say something inelegant or downright sloppy.

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  26. That's a very good point, Robert. Sometimes it's better to break the rules for the sake of clarity of meaning.

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  27. Gah, passive voice - the bane of my existence. It tends to creep into my work despite my best efforts!

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  28. Talli, yep, same here. But sometimes it's ok. That's the beauty of writing -- some rules are emant to be broken ;)

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  29. Great post--so many people hate on passive voice, but I agree there can be ways to use it to create a specific effect!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  30. Hi Angela, as with anything, as long as we don't overuse it, it can be effective when used in the right places.

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