Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Active vs. Passive: Voices Inside My Head

Anna writes:
Help, Snarky! My creative writing teacher keeps writing little notes ('don't be passive!' and 'use the active!') in the margins of my papers. I understand the difference between the passive and the active. But I just don't see anything grammatically wrong with the passive. What's the big deal?
I understand your frustration, Anna. But this really isn't about grammar; it's about style and clarity. Your teacher seems to think you use the passive voice too often. Too much of the passive voice can lead to dull and somewhat lazy writing. Also, with the passive voice, it is often unclear who is doing what to whom.

On the other hand, I can think of many situations where the active voice is not the best choice. When the object of the sentence is more interesting than the subject, for example, it can call for the passive voice. The TMZ headline (above) works better in the passive voice because it puts Paris Hilton's name first. Hilton being sued is more interesting than who is suing Hilton. Compare these two versions:
Paris Hilton Sued for $35 Million over Hair Extensions (passive)
Hair Extensions Company Sues Paris Hilton for $35 Million
Want to be a better writer? Mix it up. Inject more of the active voice into your stories and essays, but use the passive voice where it feels right. My guess is that your writing will become more lively and readable.

Quick rules:
  • In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action. The dog ate the steak. The Blue Devils won the game.
  • In the passive voice, what should be the subject of the sentence becomes the object. The steak was eaten by the dog. The game was won by the Blue Devils.

Need to know: The typical construction of the passive voice is:  
form of 'to be' (is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) + past participle (often ends in '-ed')
Practice spotting the passive voice and turning it into the active voice.
  • It is argued that... >> John Smith argues that...
  • You're being tricked. >> He is tricking you.
  • Women were discriminated against in the 1920s. >> Society discriminated against women in the 1920s.
  • The main character was portrayed as an idiot. >> The writer portrayed the main character as an idiot.
  • Kids were not treated well at the school. >> The school did not treat kids well.


    1. Can passive and active voices be mixed up when felt necessary, while writing an essay or there is a rule if active voice is used passive voice should be avoide and vice versa

      1. Why, yes, it's perfectly acceptable and writers do it all the time. But using the active voice will give your writing more energy, so keep that in mind when choosing.

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    3. I'm really glad. I was a tie jejeje... and I have an exposition tonight. You saved my life. Thanks!

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