Sunday, December 5, 2010

Playing with the Passive

Thou shalt not use the passive voice!

How often have you heard this commandment? Almost as often, I'd bet, as “Show, don't tell”. However, like most things in life, it's not that simple. The passive voice is a legitimate English construction. It is perfectly grammatical and exists for very good reasons.

I've found that many authors, and even editors, are confused about the passive voice. Recently I had an editor object to one of my sentences because she believed it was passive. The sentence had the form “she had spoken to her friend before departing”. This is not a passive sentence but she apparently thought it was, presumably because it includes a so-called helping verb (“had”). So before I go further and defend the passive (under certain circumstances), let me try to clarify the definition of passive voice.

A sentence is passive voice if the grammatical subject of the sentence is the logical or semantic object, that is, the recipient of an action rather than the actor.

Maybe this doesn't help. Let me put it more colloquially. In a passive sentence, the subject of the sentence doesn't “do” anything; it is “done to”.

Some examples may make things clearer:

Active:   The dog bites me.
Passive:  I am bitten [by the dog].

Active: The vampire licked the tender flesh below her earlobe.
Passive: The tender flesh below her earlobe was licked [by the vampire].

Active: He had kissed her tenderly before he climbed onto his horse.
Passive: She had been kissed tenderly by him before he climbed onto his horse.

Active: I will eat my vegetables.
Passive: My vegetables will be eaten [by me].

In each case, the passive version reverses the active version, making the direct object be the subject, and optionally adding the former subject as the object of the preposition “by”.

The predicate in a passive sentence is some form of the verb to be followed by the past participle of the verb expressing the action. For regular verbs, the past participle ends in “ed” and has the same form as the simple past:


Irregular verbs, however, often have special forms for the past participle:


By the way, only transitive verbs can be involved in passive sentences. A transitive verb is one that requires a direct object. (Some verbs can be used in both transitive and intransitive situations.) If there's no possibility of a direct object, then clearly the object can't be made into a subject.

Note that just because a sentence includes a form of the verb to be does not mean it is passive. For example, the following sentences are all active voice:

I am an erotic romance author.
I was hungry.
I had been waiting for the bus for nearly half an hour.

Notice also that the question of tense (that is, at what time the action occurred) is independent of whether a sentence is active or passive. In my first four examples, (1) is present tense, (2) is simple past, (3) is past perfect and (4) is future. In the passive version, the form of the verb to be determines the tense.

So now that we know what passive voice is (and is not!), why is it so maligned? The primary reason so many books advise against using the passive is the fact that passive sentences can reduce the impact of an action. Active sentences are shorter, more direct and more dynamic than passive ones. Using active as opposed to passive voice is akin to choosing strong, specific verbs over weak, general ones: “stumbled”, “sauntered”, or “strolled” instead of “walked”, for example.

In fact, psychological research has demonstrated that passive sentences are more difficult to understand than active sentences. This makes sense. In an active sentence, the grammar supports and provides clues to the underlying meaning. In a passive sentence, grammar and meaning conflict.

Given these results, why would you ever want to use the passive voice? There are at least three situations in which the passive is desirable or even necessary:

1. The true actor – the logical subject of the action – is unknown.

As the door slid closed, I was knocked on the head so hard that I saw stars.

Many articles have been written about the perils of the passive voice.

2. You deliberately want to focus attention on the recipient of the action, because this is your current POV character.

Henrietta had been wooed by every eligible bachelor in the county, but she despised them all.

Buck was bruised and battered by the gang's weapons, but he refused to give up.

3. You deliberately choose an indirect mode of expression for stylistic reasons.

Professor Rogers was a man of well-established habits, delicate sensibilities and
refined tastes. He was enthralled by the soaring harmonies of Mozart's Requiem
and intrigued by the challenging arguments of Sartre. Rogers was confused when
students insisted on sending him email. In his world view, words should be committed
to paper and vouchsafed to the Royal Mail for delivery.

In the third example, the repeated use of passive voice reinforces the presentation of Professor Rogers as a fussy, overly-intellectual character, the exact opposite of a man of action. Even though this paragraph is not in fact in the Professor's words, it sounds like something he might have written.

In summary, there are sometimes good reasons for adopting the passive voice. As a general rule, however, active voice tends to be more readable and engaging. What is is important is to be aware of your choices in this regard. If the passive seems right for the situation, don't be shy about using it. Recognize the passive when it pops up in your writing and make deliberate decisions based on knowledge and craft.


Madeline Elayne said...

Dear Lisabet,

Thank you for yet another wonderful musing on grammar and style! I wish people offering advice would avoid the use of "never and always" more often. What fun would literature be if became entirely formulaic? Wouldn't it be lovely if everyone who chose to write first learned the rules of grammar, then learned the slightly-less rigid suggestions of style, and then deliberately chose when to stray from them for effect?

Paul McDermott said...

Dear Lisabet,

At last, someone else who understands that there ARE situations when using a Passive Construction is not only permitted but OBLIGATORY!!
I have had 'spats' with many people regarding this grammatical point, and I have even been moved to write to certain PUBLISHERS who have criticised writers for GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT use of Passive Voice. (I actually got a reply from ONE Editor who had the grace to admit that he had made a mistake, and acknowledged that I was right!)

Anyone who studies any of the main modern languages (particularly the Latin-based languages such as French, Italian Spanish etc) will know that the Passive voice is far more frequently used, and is used for very specific purposes. If Latin were still taught in schools, of course the problem with understanding of how and when to use the Passive Voice would not be a problem ...

NB. " If Latin [i]were[/i]still taught ..."
Anyone like to discuss use of the SUBJUNCTIVE mood???
Paul McDermott

Lisabet Sarai said...

Madeline - I feel exactly the same way. Grammar is part of our toolbox, and we need to know the rules, but can then "break" them judiciously.

Paul - Thank you for your enthusiastic support. Maybe I'll do another post about the subjunctive sometime! (And yes, I took four years of Latin in high school. Guess that it is REALLY a dead language these days...)

BrennaLyons said...

Any "rule" that includes never, not complete and correct. The rules are in place to avoid OVERUSE of any given item. Remember what Mama taught us, "Too much of anything, even a good thing, is bad for you." Likewise, too much of a good thing is bad for (weakens) your writing.

One major complaint about "passive voice" is the use of the continuous. He was XXXing... The occasional use of it is fine. Starting every scene or chapter with it to set scene is poor writing. There are stronger choices that could be made.

Anything against the rules, done skillfully, is still good writing. Some days, I think editors are too tied up in the rules to see the work as it stands on its own two legs.


BrennaLyons said...


Don't bet on it. My son is taking Latin right now. He's an 8th grader, and they are offering free language classes at his school as an after school activity. My youngest is taking French. My son is taking Latin. Since Latin is the forerunner of so many languages (including a fair slice of English, though English steals from everyone), a good base in Latin might help him with a language he later pursues or with scientific terminology (since he's a science major). Or might not, since he wants to learn both Spanish and German as additional languages. Latin won't help him with the German, though it might help him with the Spanish. Grin...

In addition, we have what is called the "Classical Academy" at the local high school. Students there are expected to take Latin and Greek...a year or two of each (don't ask me which of the four sub-dialects of Greek, because I have no clue), in addition to any other language they might choose to add to their class load. Their entire class load is heavy in ancient cultures (history, literature, arts, government), applying them to today's world, and so forth. Interesting program, but my kids seem to all be heading into science fields that we have better programs locally to prep them for (veterinary, robotics/electronics, and environmental sciences).


Paul McDermott said...

Lizabet Latin, DEAD? Mais non, mon amie .. !

First time I met my (Swedish) in-laws Pa-outlaw had NEVER travelled outside Sweden and left school BEFORE English became a compulsory curriculum subject. Result: no common language.
BUT: since he and I both attended Jesuit-run schools where Latin was taught we spent two weeks "getting to know you" in Latin.
That was a MEMORABLE Christmas!! LOL

Paul McDermott said...

PS. "Mon amie" is correct. the female "ma" (expected before "amie" = female friend) is replaced with the male "mon" to avoid the consecutive vowels which French people find difficult to pronounce!
Love finding oddities in languages .... LOL

Allison Knight said...

I love passive voice. The reason - I write traditional, 1st person gothics. There's something about passive voice and 1st person that lends itself to the gothic genre, a kind of formality the historical gothic needs.


Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, all,

I'm delighted to hear that Latin still lives!

Brenna - I agree that "He was XXXing" gets boring when repeated too often. However, this is not passive voice, it's past progressive tense...

Paul - I'd never consider critiquing your French ;^) I've forgotten almost all of mine, alas.

Allison - I agree with you. Certain genres more or less demand a heavier use of the passive. (Technical research writing tends to as well.)

BrennaLyons said...

Ah, but editors CALL a lot of things passive that aren't truly passive voice. What they mean to say is that there may be a "more active, stronger" way to say something. Rolling eyes.


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