Passive Voice Explained by Me
by Trista Cornelius
When I meet new people and they ask, “What do you do?” I feel trepidatious. It’s not that I don’t love teaching English. In fact, I do. It’s people’s assumptions about what I know and what I teach that I dread. For example, at a wedding I am catching up with a friend I haven’t seen since high school. After I tell her I teach English, she asks with cocktail held gracefully as she towers over me in her high heels and svelte physique, “So, what is the difference between a predicate and a participle?” Then she waits for me to answer, as if this information is on the tip of my tongue.
Maybe a professional editor knows the answer, but I have to look it up every time. Do most writers need to dedicate creative brain cells to this kind of knowledge? No!
This is all to say that I am about to tackle a vexing writing issue that sometimes matters little because I doubt it causes you any great trouble: passive voice.
Passive voice can weaken business-like writing, such as cover and query letters or book proposals to editors. But I don’t think it vexes creative writing because it isn’t always bad and active voice is not always better. So, I’ll start at the beginning and you can make your own decision by the end of this article.
Passive voice means the subject of a sentence gets buried in the sentence because it’s not doing the action. For example, active voice would state, I hugged my dictionary. Passive voice would read, My dictionary was hugged by me.
See how the “I” doing the hugging gets shifted to the end of the sentence and the reflexive pronoun “me” in some distant way claims the act of hugging?
Not that you’ll be writing about hugging in your book proposal, so let’s say in your letter to an editor, you write:
The enclosed collection of prose poems was written by me to be considered for your publication. Many other poems can be found at shywriter.net.
Here, passive voice is a bad choice because you’ve introduced yourself and your work obscurely.
Active voice, on the other hand, has the subject doing the action and is more clear and direct:
I write prose poems and have published in many different magazines. The collection I enclosed fits the guidelines of your “Best Poems in the Universe” contest perfectly. You can read more of my work at confidentwriter.com. Thank you for considering my creative work.
Okay, back to that sentence about hugging dictionaries. Let’s say you’re writing a children’s story about why it’s important to love books. The passive sentence – The dictionary was hugged by Talisa – is perfect because it puts emphasis on the book getting hugged and being loved, rather than emphasizing the character doing the hugging.
Or, let’s say you’re writing a mystery. One morning, your protagonist discovers graffiti keyed into her car:
The car was keyed. This was discovered by Monique early Tuesday morning.
In the first sentence, the agent of action is not even stated; it doesn’t tell who keyed the car. This is passive, but it’s a good choice because Monique does not yet know who keyed her car – and the reader doesn’t know either. Creating a subject to credit the graffiti to is not possible. The closest you can get is something vague:
Someone keyed the car. A person keyed the car. A vandal keyed the car … .
All of these active options give away more than you want to tell at this point in the story. “Someone” and “a person” exclude the possibility of a non-human culprit (one of those rogue robots or the neighbor’s sharp-horned goat). “A vandal” implies someone with a record and intent to damage. Maybe it was an accident.
The second sentence, however, might be more clear if it were active: Monique discovered the tagging early Tuesday morning.
Then again, if your emphasis is on the discovery of vandalism, not who discovered it, passive construction is better. Passive construction keeps the graffiti in reader’s minds, not Monqiue.
People are warned against passive voice because it’s less direct, and writers sometimes use it when they feel uncomfortable expressing the cold, hard facts.
Passive voice: Monthly rent was raised this month by $200
Active voice: I raised your rent $200 starting this month.
Or, imagine you’re at a cocktail party where the tall, svelte, confident person you’ve just met asks what you do. You say you’re a writer. “Oh, writing the next great American novel, eh? How’s it going?”
You recall your afternoon, the one you carved out to work on chapter nine, but instead you washed the dishes and ate an entire box of chocolate while staring out the window pretending that you’d eventually get to chapter nine. You reply, as honestly and politely as you can. “Work on the novel has been slow. Writer’s block has possibly occurred. Motivational counseling may be sought. The story idea is loved by me, but the chapter has failed to be finished.”
Here, passive voice spares you the harsh reality of active voice!
Ultimately, this column is more about confidence than passive voice.
Here’s passive voice at its worst:
Fine writing is done in the Voice Catcher community.
How about confidently owning your creative endeavors and accomplishments with the active:
I (insert your name) produce fine writing for the VoiceCatcher community – or for other publications or for work or for my personal satisfaction.
That’s not only active voice, but confident writing!
And, in case it’s been driving you crazy during the time you’ve taken to read this article, a participle is a verb used as an adjective, like “boiled peas” or “baked beans.” A predicate is basically another word for “verb.”
This is the twefth in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!