Grammar nerds unite: The Passive Voice – what is it and when should we avoid it?

It seems to be one of the ubiquitous ghosts, writing clichés that haunt the halls of message boards and writing groups alike: avoid the passive voice.
I reckon, however, that the passive voice is very misunderstood — both in the way sharks are and also in the simplest of ways. From the examples these helpful advise-givers use to support this ghost – one might come to the conclusion that there is quite a lot of confusion as to what the passive voice actually is.

I may not be a master writer (yet?) – but I am an English teacher, and while I will have to leave the value of the passive voice to discussions between master writers, I can easily clear up this one issue.

Active voice: Laila adopted a kitten.

Passive voice: The kitten was adopted by Laila.

The passive voice, very simply, is the grammatical term for putting the object (the kitten) of a sentence at the beginning of said sentence. This draws the attention to the object rather than the subject. It is called passive because the object doesn’t act – something just happens to it. The subjects acts. Lilly adopts a cat. The cat doesn’t do anything – something happens to it, it is being adopted… very passively.
And yes, I  only used this example for an excuse to show off a picture of my kitty!

1

I have heard people who don’t understand this principle try to explain it  differently. Some well-meaning advisers may tell you to look for instances of “was” or “were” in your sentences, as they can be indicators of the passive voice.
As you can see above, this can be true. However, this leads to very very misleading examples like the one I read earlier:

Active voice: I thought about a new challenge.
Passive Voice: I was thinking about a new challenge.

This of course has “was” in it and if we were walking about people in plural it would be “were” but it is NOT passive at all. It’s simply the past continuous — used to describe the background or the setting to a scene or to describe dynamic situations that are liable to change. It is perfectly active – in certain situations more active or dynamic than the simple past tense.

The actual passive to this active statement would be: “A new challenge was thought about (by me).” And yes, that sounds very silly. This is also why in most cases, it is very very difficult to actually abuse the passive tense. In most cases it sounds weird and wrong or is simply impossible.

Grammatically speaking, the passive is used when the subject of a sentence is either not very important or unknown. Or when the object is simply more important. I used it right there in the beginning of this paragraph: “the passive is used…” I could have said “We use the passive when…” but this whole blog post is about the passive voice – not so much about this nebulous “us” I might mention.

medium_5020082786

The passive voice is not a mistake! There are times when it is stylistically awkward but there are also times where it is completely acceptable and preferable to the active voice.

Check out this very helpful guide by the University of Toronto.

Honestly, all these trope advise cards like “don’t use [insert grammatical function here, e.g. passive voice, adverbs, pronouns etc.]” are over-simplified and not very helpful if not properly understood. We have all these grammatical functions in our arsenal to describe different situations — if one was superfluous, it would have died out. That’s how language works.

But so far, we have only spoken in grammatical terms, and sometimes, rules are a bit different in fictional writing.  The guide I linked to above, e.g. mostly concerns academic writing. But still – the same rules apply. It is definitely true that the passive should be used sparingly, and that the active voice drives a story — but that doesn’t mean the passive doesn’t have it’s place. I once was given a prompt to start a story with the following sentence:

It was three days before they found the body…

It was meant to continue the story of people dying in the prompt before. Now because in my little ficlet, these finders were not named and not important at all, I instinctively changed it to:

It was three days before the bodies were found…

My story was about the dead bodies, not the people who found them. I didn’t want a “they” in that sentence. It would have given “them” far too much importance that wasn’t delivered in the rest of the story.

medium_5237937436

Other (better!) examples are easily found (see I’m doing it again, hehe). Any of these sound familiar?

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

“Albus Severus,” Harry said quietly, so that nobody but Ginny could hear, and she was tactful enough to pretend to be waving to Rose, who was now on the train, “you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.”
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Jesse Owens had just completed the 4 x 100 meter relay and won his fourth gold medal. Talk that he was sub-human because he was black and Hitler’s refusal to shake his hand was touted around the world.
— Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men [who were] singed and driven back by flame.
He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles in the dark. It never went away that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.
— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

I really just took random books out of my shelf and opened them. Do not avoid the passive voice like the plague. It is not the death of good writing. Love it, nurture it, understand it and use it only when it is more appropriate than the active form, when it is better at painting the exact picture you are looking to convey!

photo credit: aaron.knox and naosuke ii via photopin cc

One Comment

Leave a Reply