The Passive Voice

TigerThe passive voice is a language construct that is abhorred by many people. I disagree. As with any tool, you shouldn’t overuse it, but it does have a use, even if people might say it should be killed off in all writing.

What is the passive?

A sentence is said to be active if it follows the basic structure: subject-verb-object. A sentence can be made passive by reversing subject and object: object-verb-subject.

Let’s look at a simple example. First, the active sentence:

John wrote a story

The passive version is this:

A story was written by John

You can even leave out the subject:

A story was written

Simple, right? Let’s take a look at how this works. To transform a sentence from active to passive, you first need to find the subject, object, and verb. In the example these are the following:

  • Subject: John
  • Verb: wrote
  • Object: a story

Then you:

  1. Reverse the object and subject: ‘A story wrote John
  2. Add a ‘by’ to the sentence: ‘A story wrote by John’
  3. Add a form of ‘to be’ to the verb: ‘A story was written by John’

And that’s it. You can apply the procedure in reverse to make a passive sentence active.

Note that not all instances of ‘to be’ represent a passive sentence. ‘John was a man’ is an active sentence, even though some grammar software might mark it as passive.

Why not to use it

The passive has two problems. The first is that it’s more difficult to read. Our brains process a sentence word for word. That means that in a regular active sentence, our brain starts with the subject, then adds the action they are performing, then finishes with the object of the action. A passive sentence is less straightforward.

Our brain processes what it thinks is the subject, then processes the verb, then realizes it’s a passive sentence and backs up. Only after reading the actual subject can our brain process the full sentence.

In short, passive sentences are generally harder to read.

The second problem of the passive, is that it’s, well… passive. Instead of somebody doing something, we read that something is being done to somebody. I’ve written before about giving your characters agency and active sentences are a style element to support that. A story with a lot of passive sentences feels sluggish and places the reader at a distance.

That said, the passive is not all bad.

When to use it anyway

There are a couple of instances that an active sentence is not the way to go.

There are times that the object of a sentence is in fact the most important part, not the subject. For example:

The Sistine chapel owes much of it fame to its frescos, most notably ‘The Last Supper’. The Last Supper was painted by Michelangelo.

The second sentence is passive, but quite appropriate, because ‘the Last Supper’ is the important thing here, not Michelangelo. If you were to make that second sentence passive, it would actually be harder to read.

A second reason to use the passive, is if the subject is unknown:

Out of nowhere, John was hit in the back of the head.

You can’t put a subject at the start of your sentence if there is no subject.

A third reason to go passive is when the subject of a sentence is very long. Long subjects can be more confusing to the brain than a passive sentence structure:

Scientists were perplexed by the fact that the measurements did not confirm their theories.

This reads better than:

The fact that the measurements did not confirm their theories perplexed scientists

And as a final reason, consider formal texts, such as business reports and scientific texts. You can only use ‘they’ and ‘people’ as a subject so many times, and you don’t want to use ‘I’.

Conclusion

In summary, the passive is a tool, like so many things in writing. It can be abused, but also used wisely.

As with any tool, you need to know when to use it, and when not to, or you’re going to use it in the wrong places. I hope this post helps with that.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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