Tip Thursday: Passive vs Active Voice

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On another of my posts, I’ve had some social commentary from a reader who corrected me on something I said to another commenter about passive vs active voice.  Ultimately she was correct, what I’d originally said was active was, in fact, not active voice. However, I disagreed with the example she used to demonstrate her point, as it didn’t use the original examples and confused other readers who emailed me to ask what in the heck she was talking about.  🙂  So I decided to do a post on passive vs active voice. 

In my search for references, I went to my trusty grammar divas who already covered this topic.  Since they said it better than I could, I’m just going to copy and paste it below, with a few more links to places that have posted on this.

Passive voice is one of the most difficult grammar issues fiction writers struggle with every day. It’s the redheaded stepchild because it’s awkward, wordy, and generally vague. Active voice tends to be crisp and direct. Ergo, to ensure your readers understand what you’re trying to say and enjoy doing so, active voice is your best bet.

You’d think knowing what voice to use would be easy because there are only two: active and passive. However, many a writer has ground teeth, pulled hair, and/or stomped feet trying to rewrite a sentence into active voice that his or her editor or critique partner has marked as “passive”.

The voice of a verb shows the strength of the subject of the sentence. Not physical strength, perception strength. Editors feel active voice is more direct, dynamic, and—literally and figuratively—active because attention is directed at the “doer” of the action. Passive is, well, too passive for most commercial fiction.

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence takes the action of the verb, i.e., is the actual “doer” of the action. Let’s use a familiar joke to explain.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

The chicken is the subject of the sentence, i.e., the doer of the action. This is active voice.

Why was the road crossed by the chicken?

Here, the chicken is the doer of the action, but not the subject of the sentence. The subject of the sentence is the road and is receiving the action. This is passive voice.
Now, let’s illustrate the difference using sentences a reader might find in commercial fiction.

Active voice is when the subject of the sentence takes the action of the verb, i.e., is the actual “doer” of the action.

John threw the ball across the road.
The spider bit Samuel under his swimsuit.

Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is acted upon.

The ball was thrown by John across the road.
Samuel was bitten under his swimsuit by the spider.

Passive voice is not any use of to be (in any form). The key to identification is:

Must Have #1: form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice. (Does past participle sound like the latest energy drink? Think a verb form ending in –ed that expresses completed action. Of course, there are a few exceptions like paid, thrown, bitten, and driven.)

Must Have #2: A receiver of the action (a direct object) that is the subject of the sentence.

May Have #3: The doer of the action is in a prepositional phrase that begins with by or sometimes for. Why may have?

A body was found last night. = passive voice

Not all passive voice sentences contain by or for.

The prince’s generosity surprised Summer. = active voice
Summer was surprised by the prince’s generosity. = passive voice
Adrianne’s coming-out party was a blast. = active voice
Adrianne’s coming-out party was held by her parents. = passive voice

Tired of editors, contest judges, and/or critique partners circling every was and marking it passive? What they forget is that only transitive verbs (those taking objects) have a passive voice form.

John threw the ball across the road. = active voice
The ball was thrown by John across the road. = passive voice

However, linking verbs (not helping forms) only suggest state of being and can’t have a passive voice form—though some people interpret a state of being as a passive form. Well, maybe, but it’s not a grammatical VOICE form.

John was a teacher. = active voice
The teacher was John. = active voice

Confused? Remember, a linking verb does not show action. It connects a word or words in the predicate (the verb and any objects, modifiers, or complements associated with the verb) to the subject in the sentence. Forms of to be (am, are, is, was, were) are common linking verbs. Others include grow, look, became, appear, look, taste, and remain. Because linking verbs don’t show action, they can’t be active or passive.

Why is avoiding passive voice so important? Passive voice is a grammar issue the fiction writing community—especially within the romance genre—takes seriously. Passive voice is not grammatically wrong, but most editors feel active voice is more direct, dynamic, and—literally and figuratively—active because attention is directed at the doer of the action. They see passive voice as passive writing bleeding onto the page. They see an author unwilling to grab a hold of their prose and commit to producing strong, aggressive writing.

Passive voice can also drive a reader insane with its contorted, artificial structure. And we don’t want to drive our readers crazy, do we?

How to Fix Passive Voice
It’s easy. Simply switch the sentence order to make the doer and the subject one.

The tablecloths were discarded after the party by Cheri.

Remember, in passive voice the subject of the sentence receives the action, not the actual “doer” of the action. Here, the subject of the sentence—the tablecloths—receives the action—were discarded. Who’s the actual “doer” of the action? Cheri.

Cheri discarded the tablecloths after the party.
OR
After the party, Cheri discarded the tablecloths.

That’s better.

Jackson was wanted by every woman in the bar.

Subject of the sentence? Jackson. What’s the action? Wanted. Actual “doer” of the action?

Every woman in the bar. Ready? Switch!

Every woman in the bar wanted Jackson.

That’s better.

Is Passive Voice Ever Okie-Dokie?

Sometimes the object of the action is the important thing, not the doer. Here, passive voice is the better way to go.

That maniac turned Mysia’s car upside down on Tuesday. = active voice
On Tuesday, Mysia’s car was turned upside down by that maniac. = passive voice

Sometimes you have a sentence with two clauses. Here, passive voice creates a shift in subject that makes the sentence flow.

As the Laird surveyed his lands, his enemies plotted treachery. = active voice
As the Laird surveyed his lands, treachery was plotted by his enemies. = passive voice

Sometimes the doer of the action is unknown and therefore we must use passive or rewrite the sentence.

Burglars stole the jewels last night. = active voice
The jewels were stolen last night. = passive voice

Sometimes the detachment between the subject of the sentence and the doer of the action works for stronger prose.

“He’s round sunburned face was marked by a certain watchful innocence.” Reflections in a Golden Eye, Carson McCullers.

Here, the emphasis is on innocence. Rewriting the sentence into active voice would ruin the author’s intent.

“You can be defeated and disoriented by all these feelings.” Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott.

Here, the emphasis is on you. A rewrite would kill Anne’s masterpiece.

“The body lay on the back, the head toward the door. A candlestick was yet clutched in the right hand.” Wilderness, Robert Penn Warren.

The last sentence, in passive voice, delivers a dramatic punch.

Jane was taken to the cleaners.

Idiomatic phrases allow us some liberties. Not many editors would poo-poo a sentence like this one.

What About Passive Voice in Dialogue?

That’s between you and your character. If active voice suits the speaking style you’ve created for a character, go active voice. If you need to show a character’s indecision, hesitation, or discomfort, go with passive voice. Just remember to distinguish character indecision or hesitation from author indecision or hesitation.

Final Tips on Passive Voice

1) Write the way you speak and your writing will be more lively, powerful, and engaging than writing the way you think writing should sound.

2) Still not sure whether to go passive voice or active voice?

3) Try both and decide what sounds smoother.

4)Still, still not sure? When in doubt, go active voice.

5) Don’t worry about passive voice until you’re in the editing stage of your manuscript!

Remember, write first; edit later.

List of other sites that talk about passive vs active voice.

Ask an editor
Words fail me
Grammar Divas (worksheet)
The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Mr. Edit
Patricia Wrede
Fiction Writers Mentor
Online English Class (worksheets)


3 Responses to “Tip Thursday: Passive vs Active Voice”

  1. Liz Czukas says:

    >Awesome summary. Thanks for rounding up all these links in one spot!

    – Liz

  2. Eleven Eleven says:

    >I never realized it until recently, but passive voice is perfect for distancing the narrator from the acting entity. Case in point is the invisibility of the household staff in Historical Romances.

    'The ball gown was laid out for Horatia'

    Is much more in keeping with the mentality of that time than

    'Mary laid out Horatia's ball gown'

    Of course, many more modern-thinking authors tend to make the hired help human and therefore noticed, but that irritates me for its historical inaccuracy.

    Great job spelling out active versus passive and how it doesn't include to be verbs. Common misconception.

  3. Ezmirelda says:

    >Great post on verb tenses! Fortunately I've never had any trouble with them because active and passive verb tenses is one of the first things you learn in Latin, and I've been taking the dead language every year since 7th grade. 😉

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