Passive Voice is fairly simple, and yet it’s quite possibly one of the most maligned (and misused) terms a writer is likely to come across.
If you’ve landed on this page, it’s possible you’ve seen the term thrown around like so much glitter in a paranormal teen romance novel. A lot of beginning writers—and even some established ones who ought to know better—use the word “passive” to describe parts of a piece of writing that they think need to be rewritten, or that they think breaks some other “rule” of writing.
This use of “passive” is probably unstoppable at this point, and it’s not very helpful, for two big reasons:
It’s a vague term, and people use it in different ways. It’s usually far more helpful to say specifically what problems a piece of writing has, and offer specific suggestions on how to fix it.
There is a well-known and perfectly sensible grammatical concept which already uses the word—Passive Voice.
In this article, I’m going to do my part to actively stamp out this confusion (little joke there, ha ha). I’ll explain both what the passive voice most emphatically is not, what the term and its antonym, active voice, actually mean, and provide some guidelines on when to use both.
What Passive Voice is Not
First of all, it’s important to understand some of the common misconceptions about passive voice. Passive voice is not:
“Telling” instead of “showing.”
Writing that makes the reader lose interest.
Each of these may be important things to keep in mind while writing (or they may not be, depending on whom you ask), but they are certainly not passive voice. Telling instead of showing is… well, telling instead of showing. And there are a ton of more precise ways you can describe dull writing than the misleading, unhelpful label of “passive writing.”
You also can’t just look for any use of the word “was” and assume the sentence is in the passive voice. For example, the sentence “I was cold” is not passive—it’s just past tense.
One last thing passive voice emphatically is not?
Well, not necessarily.
“What!?” I hear you shout. “WHAT!? Heresy! Sacrilege! Off with his head! Down with the monarchy! Up the proletariat! Ia! Ia! Cthulhu F’taghn!”
Before you throw me down the nearest oubliette, let me explain what passive voice is, why it is sometimes a bad thing, and how you can avoid it—as well as how to figure out when it’s okay.
A Brief Grammatical Refresher
The key to understanding passive voice lies in accepting the fact that it’s strictly a grammatical term which relates to how sentences are constructed. A quick grammar brush-up might be useful here. If you’re a grammar wiz, you can skip it:
The subject of a sentence is, essentially, what the sentence is about. It’s usually a person, place, or thing. In most sentences, the subject is either doing some sort of action or being described. Almost all of the time, the subject is at the very beginning of an English sentence. (e.g. “Bob is silly.”)
The object of a sentence appears at the opposite end, always after the action in the sentence. It, too, is usually a person, place or thing, and in most sentences it’s the person, place, or thing to which the action is being done (e.g. “I laughed at Bob.”). Not all sentences have objects, of course—just look at “Bob is silly,” above.
Verbs are action words. Sometimes they’re just used to describe states of existence (e.g. “Bob is silly.”), but in most sentences you write they’ll be actions (e.g. “I laughed at Bob.”)
Understanding passive voice really all comes down to verbs. Whenever you put a verb in a sentence (that is: all the time), you are using one of two kinds of “voice,” which is really just a fancy way of saying that you’re deciding how “to indicate the relation of the subject [of the sentence] to the action.” (Definition quoted from OED Online).
Agency is also very important—it’s what describes the parts of a sentence in relation to the action. Both the subject and the object can be either an agent (the thing doing the action) or a patient (the thing having the action done to it), in addition to being grammatical subject and object. So, for example, in the sentence “Bob hit John,” Bob is the agent (he’s hitting John), and John is the patient (he’s being hit by Bob).
Now, on to passive voice.
The Differences Between Passive and Active Voice
There are two types of voice in English: passive and active.
What is Passive Voice?
Passive voice, on the other hand, results when the object of the sentence is doing the action (or is the agent), and the subject is receiving it (or is the patient). To continue abusing John, we might say “John was hit with a stick.” This is passive voice because John, the subject of the sentence, is the one being acted upon.
To spot passive voice, here’s all you need to do:
Examine the relationship between the subject, object, and verb of a sentence. If the object is the thing doing the verb, the sentence is passive. If the subject is the thing doing the verb, the sentence is active.
If you don’t take anything else away from this article, take that.
What is Active Voice?
Active voice is the most common, and results when the subject of a sentence is also the agent. That is, when the subject is the person, place, or thing doing the action. So you might say, for example, “I hit John with a stick.” That’s in the active voice because you, the subject of the sentence, are also the agent—you are doing the action, hitting John with a stick. (John is the object, and also the patient, being hit.)
As you can see, there’s nothing mystical, nothing complicated, and nothing at all involving the word “was” as a 100% sure-fire way to find passive voice. (So please, stop saying that works!)
There’s also, to be honest, nothing particularly horrible about passive voice in the first place. It’s just a different way of showing who’s doing the action in a sentence and who’s receiving it.
“Hang on a minute, again!” I can hear you shout. “That example sentence up there about John being hit doesn’t even have an object! Surely that’s a problem?”
Actually, though, it does—the object is just implied. It sounds really awkward to say “John was hit with a stick by me,” so we just drop “by me” and leave it at that.
Even with this basic, simple example, you can start to see a few of the things that sometimes makes passive voice so problematic. Let’s go in to a bit more detail, shall we?
Is Passive Voice Always Bad?
For the most part, you probably want to write in the active voice when possible. That’s because sentences written in active voice are generally clearer, more direct, and more compact.
The main problems with passive voice, then, are as follows:
It can be wordy. A lot of the time, passive voice requires awkward, lengthy, convoluted sentences instead of short, punchy, straightforward ones. “I found Jim’s body odour atrocious” will end up “Jim’s body odour was found to be atrocious by me”—yikes!
Most of the time, moving passive voice sentences to active voice will tighten your prose, make it more readable, and as a result confuse your readers less.
It can be vague. Take our example sentence from above, “Bob was hit by a stick.” With a sentence like that in your story, readers are going to be missing some important information: who was doing the hitting? Too much vagueness like this isn’t only off-putting, but it can actually confuse your readers about what’s going on so much that they’ll have to either closely re-read the whole scene, or just give up and go read something else.
By moving vague passive voice constructions into active voice, you can make your story’s action crystal clear.
It can lead to other grammatical errors. Know about “dangling modifiers”? These are “a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence” (Definition quoted from Purdue OWL). Most of the time, they’re fine, but sometimes passive voice can mix with dangling modifiers to leave you with a sentence that doesn’t quite say what you think it does.
The example the Purdue OWL gives is perfect: “Having finished the assignment, the TV was turned on.” Unlike the active version of that sentence, “Having finished the assignment, Jill turned on the TV,” a passive voice version accidentally describes the TV as doing the assignment, not Jill.
When you have dangling modifiers, you may want to make sure you’re using active voice in the main clause of the sentence, or you can accidentally ascribe actions to objects (and patients) instead of subjects (and agents).
When Passive Voice Can be Used
With all that being said, there are a few times when passive voice is actually a good thing.
Most of the time they’re in technical, scientific, or academic writing, when it’s sometimes considered bad form to show personal involvement with your subject matter. This isn’t always the case, though. Here are a few times passive voice can help—or at least, times when it won’t really hinder:
To emphasise the patient instead of the agent. Perhaps we’re not really interested in the agent’s role in the action, but really want to know how the patient was affected by it. In this case, you could use passive voice to emphasise what resulted from a given action, instead of what led up to it.
“Bob was hit by a car.”
Even though it’s passive voice, that looks perfectly natural, and sure won’t bore your readers or draw them out of the narrative. (In fact, it looks like a pretty strong opener for a story! “Bob was hit by a car walking home from Gloria’s wedding. He’d been thinking about how they used to make love on Sunday afternoons, the smell of her hair and her skin and the feel of her eyes on his body, and the car had just come out of nowhere and struck him…”)
When the agent is not important. Using the same example, we can look at its use of passive in a slightly different light. Not only does “Bob was hit by a car” focus on Bob’s role in the proceedings, it also avoids the problem of having to name or describe the car’s driver, who may otherwise play absolutely no role in your narrative. In this case, since Bob was thinking about Gloria instead of paying attention to the road, and the story is in his point of view, it might not even make sense to name or describe the driver anyway.
When describing general situations. If an event happened a long time ago, or doesn’t bear any particular relevance to the main action of your story, there’s no reason it 100% needs to be active.
“England was invaded by the Normans in 1066 A.D.”
Again, this is perfectly coherent, clear, and not particularly vague. You could easily use a sentence like this to describe the historical background of a story before moving on to showing your characters’ roles in the drama. (“England was invaded by the Normans in 1066 A.D., but for Griselda, the invasion didn’t change a thing. Her life still moved in the same ways, following the same dull patterns as ever…”)
Even in these cases, though, you can often get a more interesting, more engaging sentence by switching from passive to active, and just making the inanimate object used by the agent/object an agent in its own right. (e.g. “A car hit Bob when he was walking home…”)
But figuring out all those little cases isn’t my job. Now that you’ve got a fuller idea of what passive voice is, how to avoid it, and how to use it effectively, the rest is up to you.
You’re a writer, after all, aren’t you?