Active Schmactive. When the Passive Voice Makes Sense.

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What? Another post on passive voice, you ask? If you’ve spared even so much as a glance at writing advice in the depths of Google, you’d have come across dozens of articles on the subject.

Perhaps you’re sitting there wondering what more can be said that hasn’t already been covered in the plethora of material available. Perhaps not. But either way, this post offers some nuggets of advice that break away from the common ground (that’s the plan anyway).

What is the passive voice?

First things first, what is passive voice? This is the one section you can skip right on past if you’re clued up.

But if you’re not, or you just need a refresher, or (one can hope) you just so happen to enjoy my ramblings anyway, please, read on.

The ‘voice’ of a sentence is passive when the focus is on the receiver of an action (a verb). The action itself is stressed more than the person performing it.

Here’s an active sentence: John petted the dog.

The grammatical form is subject[John] petted[verb] the dog[object].

If we were to change this into a passive construction, we’d slide the subject down towards the end, preceded by ‘by’, and stick a form of ‘to be’ after the grammatical object:

The dog was[past form of ‘to be’] petted by John.

Now the receiver of the action is the subject of the sentence, rather than the performer.
This construction allows the performer of the action to be removed entirely, if desired.
The dog was petted.

This leads me to one of my favourite ways to deduce if a sentence is in the passive: if you can add on ‘by a zombie’ (or clown, or something infinitely more creative than what I can muster) at the end of the sentence, it’s passive.

What is wrong with passive voice?

Nothing.

Not inherently.

Overusing it or using it in the wrong places can cause problems. Your manuscript may be hindered if the majority of scenes are written with a passive voice – your characters should have agency that shows they’re making things happen to propel the plot forward.

Too many ‘the magic was cast by Zaia’ or ‘The hideout was ransacked by Kell’ and the story starts to feel detached from the character’s actions.

‘Zaia cast the magic’ and ‘Kell ransacked the hideout’ have more oomph. This, and the word count is reduced with the absence of ‘was’ and ‘by’.

Overall, your story will be stronger if it’s written in the active voice. But the passive doesn’t deserve to be vilified as it has been! The real problem is when the advice of ‘don’t do this, do this instead’ is followed too rigorously to the point where avoiding it makes the sentence worse.

The real problem is when the advice of 'don't do this, do this instead' is followed too rigorously to the point where avoiding something makes the sentence worse.

When the passive works

There are positives to the passive (beginning with the common advice that’s out there):

  • it removes responsibility from the actor
  • characters aren’t always active
  • passives allow the writer to control where the reader’s attention is spent
  • passive voice sounds more natural in context

Let’s tackle these in more detail.

Removing responsibility

This is a favourite technique in the realm of politics or when a corporate apology is being made: the good ol’ ‘mistakes were made’. But avoiding blame isn’t the only reason why a writer would want to remove the actor.

Often, the action is more important than who did it, and so the passive allows more weight to be attributed to what happened. This is common in newspaper or article headlines:

A man, 55, was robbed by a masked assailant in broad daylight yesterday afternoon.

A breakthrough in cancer research was made today!

The case of the feisty ferret has been put to rest!

Passive voice provides an option for characters who are describing an event but are unsure of who was involved:

‘My car was stolen!’

‘A package was left on my doorstep.’

‘Inhuman footprints were imprinted into the forest floor.’

In all the above, the actions took precedence over the performer of them.

Showing inactive characters

As above, a story is far more effective when told in an active voice. Too many instances of ‘such as such was done by protagonist’ can feel too impersonal, as if the characters are swayed by events rather than enacting them.

This is all well and good, but what about when characters are swayed by events, when they’re not in control, when they’re helpless?

Rikku was swept away by the fierce current.

Jacob was made redundant.

What would turning the first one active look like?

Rikku struggled against the fierce current.

The current swept Rikku away.

These in themselves are perfectly usable sentences and aren’t ‘wrong’, but they dampen the tone of helplessness that the passive brings. Even though Rikku is mentioned as struggling, she’s still ‘doing’ something, unlike the total loss of control the original implies.

Sometimes, a character may not have as much agency as others:

Jason was taken to school by his dad.

Althea was forced to wear this stupid outfit.

The baby was delivered at 2pm.

Passives are a great way to show when a character isn’t in control, which just sometimes happens!

Passive sentence structure is a great way to show when a character isn't in control, which just sometimes happens!

Manipulating readers' attention

Keeping the topic of each clause front and centre makes the journey through the sentence smooth, not disjointed and bumpy. Steven Pinker, in his book The Sense of Style, makes a fabulous point that the given information should come before the new.

Take this passage (passive phrases have been put in bold):

Clara couldn’t make her mind up about her time in the Sisterhood of Swords. Younger and scrawnier, she had been bullied by those who didn’t see her as a threat. That made her hungry. Angry. She’d risen through the ranks, envied by her peers and respected by her tutors. She’d been given her first Windblade by the Sosu, who’d been told to keep her eye on the little newcomer girl.

Now, let’s make it active:

Clara couldn’t make her mind up about her time in the Sisterhood of Swords. Those who’d not seen her as a threat bullied her because she was younger and scrawnier. That made her hungry. Angry. She’d risen through the ranks. Her peers envied her and her tutors respected her. Sosu, who’d been told to keep her eye on the little newcomer girl, had given Clara her first Windblade.

There will be more elegant ways in which this could be written actively, but you can hopefully see why passive works better here.

In the first example, the passive voice allows the subject of the sentences (Clara) to be consistently placed at the beginning, doer of the action or not, to keep the reader’s attention on her until the focus shifts to Sosu. Every sentence starts with what we know (given information) before introducing someone else (the new).

This isn’t the case with the second example, however. Straight after the first sentence the focus has shifted to a new subject (those who’d), then back to Clara (that made her angry), and then back to her peers and so on.

Passive voice allows the writer to postpone the mention of the doer of the verb – especially helpful when the doer has a long phrase attached to them that would come in between them and their action in the active voice.

Passive is the more natural choice

There are times when passive is really the only way that makes sense. For example, the subject may be an inanimate object or an entity, and can only have actions done to them:

The kingdom was delivered to the hands of the enemy.

The money was lost.

When the performer of the action is a generalisation rather than a concrete subject is another time when the passive sounds more natural:

Back in his youth, Jonas’ hard work had always been praised. (As opposed to ‘most of his family and some friends always praised’ or some other indeterminate group.)

‘My card was declined’ is a more natural speech pattern than ‘that damn machine declined my card!’

Final thoughts...

When bad writing advice such as ‘always avoid this at all costs’ is given, it often leads to stilted prose in an attempt to adhere to such rules that supposedly help writers. Just like when ‘show don’t tell’ is taken too far, religious avoidance of the passive voice is problematic.

This post has discussed a few ways passive voice is preferred over the active:

  • when the action itself is more important than the actor
  • when you want to portray characters as inactive or helpless against outside forces
  • when you want to manipulate a reader’s attention
  • when the passive simply makes sense or feels more natural
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Susan
Susan
11 months ago

Great article! The statement that writers should eliminate passive voice is a pet peeve of mine. I love passive and what it brings. Your statement that passive is the best way to show when a character is not in control is perfect! Do you mind if I borrow that?

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