Thursday, June 23, 2011

Active Voice vs. Passive Voice - Who Gets the Championship Belt?

 You sneak into the Grammar Arena.  It's packed full to capacity, and the spectators are screaming, waiting for their favored fighters to appear.  You wander down to ring-side where I have seats.    
"Care to join me?" I ask, patting the empty chair beside me. 
"Who's gunna win?" you wonder while sitting down. 
"Who knows?" I reply.  "But, as an avid reader I can say that a scene written in the active voice is more enjoyable."
"Why's that?" you ask.
"Because the active voice creates conflict and drives a story forward.  It keeps me turning pages late into the night.  The passive voice on the other hand is flat, uninteresting, and has no conflict."  I yawn, my jaw cracking. "The active voice is stronger than the passive because it's more direct and cuts unnecessary words.  That's especially helpful if you're writing micro or flash pieces. 
"Here." I hand you a brochure.  "It gives you a bit of information on today's fighters."

Active voice – When the subject is causing the action.  
Passive voice – When the subject receives the action expressed by the verb.  
1.     Jack was loved by Jane.  -passive 
      Jane loved Jack.  -active    
2.      The boat was driven by Jack.  -passive
            Jack drove the boat.  -active
3.   Dust was kicked up by the horse's hooves.  -passive
      The horse's hooves kicked up dust.  -active
4.   The barrels were stacked in the cart by John.  - passive
      John stacked the barrels in the cart.  - active

Ways to recognize the passive voice
1.       It will often include a form of the verb ‘to be.’  Examples:

The flowers were being picked by Jane.
The car had been washed by John.

*Using these verb forms does not always make a sentence passive. 
  Example:  I am understanding the concept.  – Here the subject ‘I’ is doing the action, thus       
it’s in active voice. 

2.      The sentence will include ‘by the’ after the verb.  Examples: 
Jack was bit by the dog.
Heat was thrown off by the furnace.
The gurney was pushed by a nurse.

Fixing the passive voice
            It’s easy.  Put the character / subject (doer of the action) up front.  Here’s the above examples in the active voice:
            Jane picked the flowers.    
            John washed the car.
            The dog bit Jack.
            The furnace threw off heat.
             A nurse pushed the gurney.

Use of the passive voice is not always wrong
Here are some times when it is better or necessary to use the passive voice:
  1. If the subject is purposefully being kept a secret / you wish to create mystery in your sentence.   When you want your reader to say, “Who did it?”  (You'll notice from the first example that politicians are fond of doing this.)
A mistake was made.
Shots were fired.

  1. Highlighting the object because it's the focus of the story.  If 'what' is stolen is more important than 'who' stole it, you would write:  

           The files were stolen by the intruder.

  1. When you wish to stress the victim of the action rather than the doer.  If it’s more important to the story  that we remember who Jane kissed, you would write:
John was kissed by Jane.

You re-fold the brochure, your brow furrowed.

"Still not sure who's gunna win?" I ask.
"It won't matter who wins.  There's bound to be a rematch."   
I nod.  "One last thing - I've read that the active voice shows the reader what is happening and the passive voice tells it.  You've heard about the 'Show vs. Tell' fight, right?"
"I have," you say, "but we can discuss that on another day.  Here comes today's fighters."

Which voice do you gravitate toward in your writing?  In your reading? 


  1. This was great, Terri! Very entertaining way to explain one of those frustrating writing issues that a lot of people struggle with (myself included). Thanks!!


  2. On my first draft, my writing tends to have too much passive voice, but once I start editing, I become the passive voice police! :-)

  3. I don't have a problem with passive voice so much as flat "[blank] is [x]" sentences. I get those scattered like confetti in my first drafts. Which isn't a bad think there, but they bore even me when I'm working on the draft.

    But I love the way you wrote about the subject. Very entertaining.