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Bob Nailor




Voice: Active or Passive

I am continually amazed at how quickly an author can slip into the passive voice when writing. Perhaps it is just easier, but I don't think so. I believe it is a mode of telling a writer feels is more comfortable.

Making a sentence be active voice is simple. You have a subject and an action verb. The subject performs the action.

Jack sees Jill.
Jack saw Jill.

Both are active voice one is present tense, the second sentence is past tense. Tense is a completely different aspect of the active versus passive.

Jill is seen by Jack.
Jill was seen by Jack.

These two sentence are passive voice one present tense and the second is, again, past tense.

There is a drawback to using passive voice in writing. This is one aspect many writers don't realize, nor see when they are editing their work. Clarity. An author, as s/he places words to reality, see the full scene in his/her vivid imagination. As a writer, we see the room, the openings, the decor, and everything else. Unless it is described to the most nauseating details, what the writer sees and that which the reader sees, can be two different things. Now, add passive voice.

The decorator painters will paint the short, decorated left side white walls on the second, third and fourth floor hallways.

The short, decorated left side white walls on the second, third and fourth floor hallways will be painted by the decorator painters.

Although both sound satisfactory, the second sentence is passive and slightly more convoluted in its details. Yes, it is easy to tell a sentence is active or passive by validating the sentence structure, but most writers are not going to diagram or analyze sentence by sentence their work in progress.

So, how can this be made easier? A tip I gave a long time ago is very useful in this regard. Although I was told by one person they didn't like using that phrase, it is adjustable. And this trick is obvious in the last example just a small tweak.

My old tip? Add "by zombies" to the sentence.

Betty is in love. (by zombies) {active}
Betty is loved. (by zombies) {passive}

The first sentence, adding "by zombies" just doesn't sound correct, so it is therefore, an active sentence. The second sentence, by adding "by zombies" makes sense and is therefore, passive. If you don't like "by zombies," you can use any "by xxx" you feel comfortable with. In fact, if you see "by xxx" in a sentence, verify that the sentence is, indeed, active. I'm going to guess that it is not. "BY" is a dead-give-away to a passive sentence.

As with any rule, there are exceptions. For general fiction writing, attempt to stay in active voice to keep the reader involved in the action. But, the exception would be, perhaps, in business. Which would you prefer to receive in the mail?

Your gas will be shut off on June 4th.
We will shut off your gas on June 4th.

The first sentence is passive and doesn't sound quite as brash or nasty more like a nice reminder. The second sentence is a cold statement, but it is active voice.

The use of active or passive voice is a fine line of knowing which is going to sound better and be understood by the reader. Context is important.




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~ COMMENTS ~

Elyse Salpeter
2015-05-11
I just want to cry - I have such an ongoing problem with this and half the time I just don't "see" when it's passive or when it's not. I just glaze... I will reread this a few times to stick it in my head.
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Bob Nailor
2015-05-11
See Diane's comment below. Love it. Look for double verbing.
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Onisha Ellis
2015-05-11
As a reader, I never notice passive voice which is why I like using a writing app when I look for errors in Rebekah's work. Can't let it go to the editor looking bad, It's kind of like cleaning the house before the cleaning person comes to clean.
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Bob Nailor
2015-05-11
How true. I have a couple of friends go over my stuff (and edit it) before I send it to the editor. Hmm? Doesn't make sense to make sure it is so clean since I'm paying for it, but I guess I just want to make sure my editor is working for her pay. LOL.
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Scott Bury
2015-05-11
Passive voice is useful when a writer wants to emphasize the object of the action, or the action itself, as opposed to the actor.

One of the most sure-fire ways to write as if you're working for the government is to use passive voice. I like to think of passive voice as a structure that hides responsibility for actions. "Your gas will be turned off" does not communicate who is going to turn it off. It's apparent from the context, but the sentence avoids responsibility.

To me, passive voice is good for scientific reports, as in "The contents of the beaker were poured into four test tubes." The reason for that is the empirical model: if the results of an experiment can be replicated, no matter who is performing the experiment, then we have a scientifically verifiable fact. But if the results depend on the person doing it, it's not science, it's art or magic.

But outside of that kind of report, passive voice tends to be more boring than active. Action makes people pay attention.
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Bob Nailor
2015-05-11
You're right. I'm a retired government worker and it is almost impossible to get out of the passive politeness. I prefer a story with active (action) to read otherwise I fall asleep.
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Diane Rapp
2015-05-11
I find that using two verbs in a sentence turns the sentence passive. When I write fast, I tend to throw in too many verbs and "ing" or "ly" words. Then I edit them all out by spotting the doubled up verbs, etc. It's difficult for a writer to see their own mistakes but double verbs get spotted fast. Thanks for another informative blog.
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Bob Nailor
2015-05-11
Fantastic insight, Diane. Thanks for that little tidbit. Will stash it away for later use.
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Lisa M. Collins
2015-05-11
OH! I will so use the ZOMBIE tip. Thanks!
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Charles Dougherty
2015-05-11
Good tips, as always, Bob. The passive voice lacks force and conviction; it doesn't fit well in action / adventure stories.
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