I’m back with another old school writing rule–active voice vs passive voice. Most of the time, when someone is talking about your “voice” in writing, they mean your narrative voice. Every once in a while, they’re referring to the way the subject, object, and verbs in your sentences interact with one another, and that’s what I want to discuss today.
Active vs passive verb usage is something I had a hard time learning. English teachers really seemed to prefer passive. Journalism teachers, on the other hand, hate it to almost a bad writing rules degree. Over the course of your writing career, someone somewhere will probably tell you to never write in passive voice.
That person is wrong. Active and passive voice are both necessary parts of English. Also, once you understand them, you can utilize them to their fullest and it will make a difference in your writing. Let’s get to work!
First, what’s the difference between active voice and passive?
Both active and passive voice involve the action happening in a sentence. Active sentences emphasize the person who performs an action. Passive sentences emphasize either the action itself, or the object that is being acted upon.
How about an example?
Active: James threw the ball.
Passive: The ball was thrown by James.
You almost always want to go active in simple sentences like this. The passive version is awkward, and overusing this kind of phrasing puts readers off. It also puffs up your word count without adding anything substantial to your story.
One last note: A lot of the free passive sentence checkers online are not accurate. I tested my example sentences on a few of them, and they tend to mark a sentence as active unless it contains “by” or “to be.” However, there are cases when a sentence’s voice is a little ambiguous, and I’ll talk about that in just a bit.
Next, let’s look at examples when active voice is better.
You can use active voice to cut down on infinitives and verbs like “was” and “were,” which will reduce your word count more than you’d think.
Sometimes passive sentences are just awkward.
Active: I ate the pie.
Passive: The pie was eaten by me.
That one is obvious, right?
Active: Email me if you have any questions.
Passive: If there are questions, I can be reached by email.
This isn’t as bad as the first example, but I feel like the active version is more direct.
Watch out for infinitive phrases.
Infinitives involve “to be + a past participle verb,” as you’ll see in the next example. Sometimes you need them. Sometimes they’re clunky and you can get rid of them.
Passive with infinitive: Dinner is ready to be eaten.
Active: Dinner is ready.
I’d avoid the infinitive in most circumstances because I don’t feel like it carries any special significance. It might work if you’re trying to show a character’s particular accent or something along those lines, though.
Okay, now let’s see some examples of when to use passive voice
When you want to emphasize the object in the sentence.
Passive: The defendant was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary.
Active: The judge sentenced the defendant to two years in the state penitentiary.
I could go either way on this example. It really depends on which version goes best with the rest of the paragraph, and whether you want to put the emphasis on the defendant or the judge.
When the subject is unknown or irrelevant.
Passive: My bicycle was stolen.
Active: Thieves stole my bicycle.
I think you’d want to put the emphasis on the bicycle rather than the unknown thieves, so passive voice works better. It’s also a little redundant to say “thieves stole” anything because who else would it be? The act of stealing automatically makes someone a thief, so you usually don’t need to point that out.
When you want to be vague.
Passive: Tests were failed.
Active: Half of the class failed their tests.
I’m not a fan of vagueness as a general rule. A lot of writers rely on vagueness to create tension or suspense, but there are more effective ways to do that. In any case, passive voice works well when you’re trying to be vague.
If you’re writing a formal paper.
That’s more than I want to get into today, since this blog is geared more toward writing fiction, but I thought I’d throw it up here as an FYI. You might need to utilize passive voice in your stories if your characters are students, scientists, or if they work in a profession where formal writing is preferred. Check the Purdue OWL if you need detailed information about writing (or imitating) formal papers.
Here’s a weird either/or situation
Sometimes you need to look at the context of a sentence before you make a final judgment call. If it’s something short and simple, active is usually better. But there might be a time when you need to rely on the passive voice for the rest of the paragraph to flow like it should.
Passive: The rabbit was chased by the dog.
Active 1: The dog chased the rabbit.
Active 2: The rabbit ran from the dog.
In the first two sentences, the dog is the subject–it’s performing the action, chasing. If you want emphasis on the dog, you should probably just go with the Active 1 example. However, if you want emphasis to be on the rabbit, you have a couple of options. You can go with the passive voice. Or you can rewrite the sentence so the rabbit is the subject, like I did for Active 2.
It’s hard to say which is better in this case. It depends on what else is happening in your story. I prefer the active voice, but you might decide that doesn’t work for you and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Finally, here is something I need to research a little more
Remember when I said my journalism teachers hated passive voice? Well, I haven’t been able to confirm whether an editor at a publishing company would react the same way. At any rate, here’s a little something my old profs couldn’t stand–passive expressions (these are also known as past progressives, by the way).
You can have a passive expression in a sentence without the entire sentence being passive.
Passive expression: I was walking to the store.
Active expression: I walked to the store.
A passive expression occurs when you pair a verb with a form of “be” (am, is, was, were, are, or been).
I checked the passive expression sentence in Grammarly and Hemingway, and neither of them flagged it as passive. Any of my journalism teachers would have marked it, though. I don’t know how an editor at a publishing company would react to a passive expression, so I can’t tell you whether it’s something you should worry about.
I’ll eventually remove or rewrite most of the passive expressions in my story. There’s a time and a place for them, but I usually write with a word count goal in mind. Adding those extra “be” forms to my verbs isn’t always economical. Word count may not be a concern if you’re self-publishing, but it’s something you should keep in mind if you want to go the traditional route because publishers have word count limits that vary from one genre to another.
English is weird. Do what works for you.
In my experience, active voice is better most of the time, but you can’t–and shouldn’t–avoid passive voice. It’s a tool, and you can learn how to use it to your advantage. I tried to keep things as simple as I could today, but I know grammar lessons don’t come naturally to some people. However, some of these basic rules can have a big impact on your writing.
If you just can’t get active vs passive down, try not to sweat it too much. You can ask a critique partner or editor to help you identify sentences that sound awkward. Some people find reading out loud helps them find errors on their own.
I have some upcoming posts that expand upon more of the finer points of writing style, so please subscribe (on the right for desktop, at the bottom for mobile) if you’re interested in receiving updates. Feel free to leave a comment down below if you have any questions or concerns. And, as always, use those social media buttons to share this with your writer friends! Thanks a bunch! I’ll see you next week.