Eat, Sleep, Write, Repeat – Passive Voice. Learn what a passive sentence is and how to avoid it.
This is the last article I have up my sleeve in the Grammar series, for now. I’ll write another one as soon as I have my books in print-condition, something that has priority at the moment.
The article is a short one, but oh so important! As I’m re-editing my first book (for the so-maniest time), I still find passive voice sentences…
In passive voice, the object becomes the subject. Obviously, you can only have passive voice sentences with transitive verbs (verbs that act upon an object).
Example 1: The famous writer gave a signed book to his greatest fan.
Example 2: The signed book was given by the famous writer to his greatest fan.
Example 3: His greatest fan was given the signed book by the famous writer.
In Example 1, the sentence is active; the writer gave the book. In Examples 2 and 3, however, the subjects are The signed book and His greatest fan resp., but they don’t do the writing. They were the direct objects and indirect objects resp. in the active sentence. Hence, sentence 2 and 3 are passive sentences. Note that the verb used in these sentences is was which is a dead giveaway.
Passive voice sentences are frowned upon and should be avoided if possible. There are a few instances in which this isn’t possible though.
Example: The baby was born at midnight.
Being born is a passive process; you can’t ‘actively birth’ yourself, hence the sentence containing someone/some animal being born will always be in the passive form.
When to use passive voice
Sometimes the passive voice is useful:
- When you want to be deliberately vague
Example: The man was killed by one of the guests.
- When you really don’t know who did it
Example: The man was killed by someone.
- When it doesn’t matter who did it
Example: The man was killed.
Passive vs. Active voice
Some say that using the passive voice is the first deadly sin in writing (see first reference below). I’m not sure if this is true, but it is certainly frowned upon in the writing community in general. To understand what passive voice is you need to know what active voice is first.
In active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb upon the object: Eve ate the apple. Eve is the subject and she ate (the verb) the apple (the object).
The passive form of this sentence would be: The apple was eaten by Eve. Here the apple, formerly the object, has now become the subject of the sentence. But the eating is not done by the apple, it’s still done by Eve. So this is passive voice; the action (verb) is not done by the subject of the sentence.
Why not use passive voice?
Readers don’t like passive voice because it is elaborate writing; the sentences are longer than they should be. Passive voice also makes it unclear regarding who did what. It is particularly unwanted in academic writing where everything must be explained and vagueness is not accepted. Although to stay objective on certain subjects it is sometimes accepted to keep the scientist out of the sentence and rewrite the whole sentence in a way that it’s not the person but the data that suggest a certain outcome. And then there are some people who just don’t understand passive writing, so in general it is better to write in the active voice.
How to find out if you’ve used passive voice?
If you find it unclear if you used active or passive voice, Rebecca Johnson suggested to put ‘by zombies’ behind the verb. If the sentence makes sense, it’s passive voice. If it’s not, it’s active voice. Personally I would prefer to use ‘by vampires’ :). Eve ate by vampires; doesn’t make sense hence it’s an active voice. The apple was eaten by vampires: makes sense hence it’s a passive voice. Although vampires would never eat apples of course…
When can or should we use passive voice?
There are also good reasons to use passive voice. Here are a few:
- When you don’t know ‘who did it.’‘This person was murdered (by vampires).‘ The killer is unknown, hence it is okay to write it this way.
- When you don’t want people to know who did it. ‘His blood supply was cut off (by vampires) accidentally.‘ In this sentence they don’t want to emphasize who were the perpetrators.
- When it doesn’t matter who did it. ‘Glasses were filled (by vampires).‘ Who cares who did it, we’ve got some drinking to do!
- When everybody already knows who did it. ‘The blood was then consumed (by vampires).’ The emhasis is on the consumption, not on who did it.
- When you want to sound authoritative. ‘Killing tourists (by vampires) is forbidden!‘
Have a Happy Writing Weekend!