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Active and Passive Voice

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In spite of what many writers – and, unfortunately, some teachers of writing – believe, active and passive voice has nothing to do with the “strength” of the verb. Rather, it is about the direction of the action.

In active voice, the subject acts upon or toward the object. The construction is a simple subject – verb – object:
“The boy (subject) kicked (verb – acted upon) the ball (object).”
“Fred Nerk (subject) loves (verb – acts toward) Mary Contrary (object).”

The subject is active (hence “active” voice) and the object is stated. Action moves from the subject to the object. The effect is a sense of immediacy.

In passive voice, the subject is acted upon or toward. What would have been the object in the active voice becomes the subject in the passive. The verb always takes the form “(part of the verb to be) + (past participle of the action verb)”. There may or may not be an object phrase with the form “by (object)”.
“The ball (object in the active voice, now subject) was (part of the verb to be) kicked (past participle of the action verb, “kick”) by the boy (object phrase).”
“Mary Contrary (object in the active voice, now subject) was (part of the verb to be) loved (past participle of the action verb, “love”.)

The subject is passive (acted upon – hence “passive” voice). The object may or may not be stated. Action moves from the object to the subject.

People today tend not to like the passive voice, but there are some very good reasons for using it.

Firstly, when you look at the examples above you will notice that, regardless of whether the voice is active or passive, the emphasis of the sentence is always on the subject. Thus, in the active voice it is Fred Nerk who gets our attention. In the passive it is Mary Contrary, and would still be so even if we were to add the object phrase “by Fred Nerk.”

One of the keys to writing good fiction (or good biographies) is to present all the action of the story through the eyes of a single character. Passive voice can be very helpful in doing this, keeping the key character as the subject even when he is acted upon rather than performing the action.

It can also be helpful when the emphasis is not on the person performing the action, but on the action itself. Let’s expand a bit on the Fred Nerk/ Mary Contrary example. Let’s say Mary is a lonely character, raised in a dysfunctional home and longing for love. Fred, who is rather shy, has fallen for her and writes her a letter declaring his affection. Part of your story might read, “Mary read the letter hastily, then hugged it to her heart, tears streaming down her cheeks. She was loved!”

At this point, poor old Fred is not even that important to her – what matters is that somebody, anybody, loves her enough to say so. Of course, you could put it in the active voice by saying “Somebody loved her,” but that detracts from the force of the emotion.

In fact, passive voice can be far more effective for expressing emotion in general. Compare “His words hurt her deeply” with “She was deeply hurt by his words.” The first carries a sense of a single stab, then it’s over. The second better conveys the lingering pain caused, and puts the emphasis on the person suffering rather than the instrument of that pain.

Another good use for the passive voice is when you don’t know, or don’t want others to know, who is performing the action. Thus a murder mystery might begin, “Sometime on the night of February 14th, Joe Bloggs was killed.” Again, you could make it active voice by saying, “Sometime on the night of February 14th, someone killed Joe Bloggs.” However, if you want the emphasis to be on Joe and his untimely death, the passive works better.

Passive voice also allows you to step back from the immediacy of the action. I personally believe that the current insistence upon the active voice is the result of television. There is no “passive voice” in television – the action is always there, right in your face. The written word, however, allows us the luxury of far greater subtleties. Just as not every painting has to be in bold primary colors (although these of course have their place), not all writing is helped by the boldness of the active voice. Good writing involves far more shades than “subject – verb – object.”

One final word. Ignore the advice of your computer’s grammar checker. Bill Gates may know an awful lot about software, but he knows absolutely nothing about the finer points of the English language!

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