Passive voice in written work

The dreaded passive voice (PV) is oft the bane of writers, especially those just starting out. PV has a crude and redundant place in writing, yet there are times when it is okay to use it. This brief article will elaborate on the nature of this litany device and how best to evoke PV to one’s benefit.

What is PV?

PA is when you make the object of an action into a subject in a sentence. The actor isn’t doing the activity, or doesn’t seem like it is; instead, the object (like a road) seems to be doing the work. See below for example:

The man crossed the trail (non-passive). The trail was crossed by the man. (passive).

The dragon destroyed the town (non-passive). The town was being destroyed by the dragon (passive).

Positioning the actor before the action associates the actor with that activity. The second sentence is more vague with the actor at the very end. Look for to be with a past participle, and ask yourself if the phrase describes an activity and who is the actor. Examples of word groups to watch out for: to be, are being, was being, was doing, is being, has been.

In contrast, active voice (AV) bring a crisper, shorter variant of prose. It caters to the reader, bringing more quality over quantity. Ask yourself this: would you prefer ten rotten apples or two ripe ones?

Here and here are more examples of PV and how to address them. Doing so often improves the conciseness of prose as well as readability. There are–of course–exceptions to the rule, and learning when a to be word group works may come with experience, as the below section illustrates.

When to use PV

There are times when PV is fine in prose. When you want to focus on the action instead of the actor, PV is the technique of choice, although it may diminish readability. Other times when PV is okay:

  1. The actor is anonymous
  2. The actor is unimportant
  3. Intended generalization

Character dialogue often uses PV and AV. Ask yourself how a character speaks. If an actor talks strange, but it’s in-character, then it’s okay. Usually–in our everyday lives–we speak with a passive voice. This method takes longer, allowing our minds to enjoy conversation and prepare our next sentence. However, in prose, a reader absorbs words much faster, therefore written PV is harder to digest.

Personal thoughts

I’ve seen PV used mainly in scientific works, like a thesis, research project, or business report. In these situations, it is generally accepted to defer to PV for a longer, more monotone and bureaucratic flair. For fiction, you’re better off staying away from PV if possible, except of course for the situations above.

Still, I’ve seen bestsellers with PV usage, so abusing this litany tool isn’t the worse sin a writer can commit. Lastly, don’t worry about PV for your first or second draft. Fixing prose is for the editing and proofing passes, much later on. Direct all your energy towards that creative muse.

Thank you for reading! I’d love to hear any feedback or questions you have in the comments below. Love and gratitude. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Passive voice in written work

  1. Hello Flux, long time no see! 😀 A nice article – can you think of any examples of really beautiful passive voice usage? I don’t remember any myself, but then I rarely remember things on a sentence level. It’s just that now I’m hankering after a pretty phrase of the PV variety! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, long time no see! 🙂
      Beautiful PV usage? I imagine that would be in dialogue or perhaps in poetry where the PV adds good rhythm to the prose. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but PV can add that additional length to a sentence.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Editing and revising: concision, precision, and other goodies | Ethereal Seals: Dragonsoul

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