Wednesday, December 01, 2010

WNW: When Passive Voice Is OKAY

Don't use passive voice; use active voice.

Ever heard that writing rule?

It's a good guideline, for sure, but like any writing rule, exceptions abound.

First, what is passive voice?

Passive voice shows up when something or someone is being acted upon rather than doing the acting. It's usually a weak way to construct a sentence or a scene because your characters are like chess pieces being moved around and having stuff thrown at them rather than actually doing anything themselves.

Often passive voice can be changed with a little tweaking, and doing so almost always results in a stronger sentence.


Tom was hit by a car.

This is passive because the car is the one actually doing the action. Tom is the recipient of the effect.

The car hit Tom.

That's active, but it's still a bit telly.

Since the first sentence (Tom was hit by a car) was rather non-specific (ie telly), let's do better on both counts. Let's show AND use active voice:

A red Jeep squealed around the corner, its headlights staring Tom in the face. He dove for the sidewalk, but too late; the grill smacked into his torso, and tires rolled over his legs. A pop and a crunch, and then silence, save for Tom's heavy breathing and a sensation of shock eclipsing the pain in his broken legs.

Now the car (or, the Jeep, since we're adding specificity) is acting. Tom's still on the receiving end, but the action is much better.

Passive voice is one reason writers are cautioned to avoid WAS constructions. They aren't all passive voice (contrary to what some writers teach or have been taught, haha--that was passive voice), but it's a clue that you might be dealing with it.

So here's a fun detail: sometimes you WANT passive voice.

1) Use passive voice when the common sentence construction demands it and changing the sentence to active would call attention to itself. Such as:

He got arrested.

Sure, that's passive, but it's also the way that term is generally used. Pointing out that police officers did the arresting is kinda silly, and it would detract.

(Note that here and in many cases, it's GET/GOT that's the key for noting passive voice, not WAS.)

2) When you're deliberately trying to avoid pointing out the person/thing who acted.
Pay attention to commercials or company communications: they rarely accept responsibility for anything, and they do so by using passive voice:

"We regret that your washing machine was improperly installed" keeps it passive and the focus on the washer.

They'd never say, "We regret that our technician installed your washer improperly," because then the spotlight is on their shortcomings and gives the customer ammunition for a refund.

You can do the same thing in your writing. Mysteries are rife with passive voice when we don't know WHO done it: "The victim was stabbed five times." Trying to avoid passive voice there would feel a bit acrobatic and awkward to the reader.

Another case to use passive voice: when you're deliberately trying to hide the person who is acting.

"Mom, one of the car's headlights got smashed," a teen says, and then slinks to their room, hoping Mom assumes it was a hit-and-run in a parking lot or something, even though the teen is the one who busted the light by driving into a lamp post.

Or when a teacher walks in to see chaos and says, "What's going on here?"and the class replies, "The same thing that happens every day."

(Careful not to point out that THEY are the ones doing whatever they shouldn't be.)

To sum up:
  • Passive voice is when the sentence shows what is happening to who/what but avoids using the subject of the action as the subject of the sentence.Most of the time, passive voice is weak and should be avoided.
  • WAS/GOT tend to signal passive voice.
  • But not all sentences with those words are passive voice.
  • Use passive voice when you (or a character) want to conceal who is doing the action.

Okay, so let's try it: After Thanksgiving, I'm amazed at how much pie GOT EATEN.

Ahem. (See? With passive voice, I admit to nothing . . .)


Rebecca Irvine said...

This is helpful! Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

Lara Neves said...

In college, one of my Music History teachers (The music history courses also counted for advanced writing) was so against passive voice that he never allowed for it, even when it made more sense to use it. The papers I wrote for him often sounded so disjointed and strange because I had to avoid passive voice at ALL costs or get a horrible grade. That's seriously all he graded us on, too. Our usage of passive voice. Content could be terrible, but if there was no passive voice in the paper, we got an A.

Anyway...I'm still a little bitter about that I guess! I much prefer your explanation of how to use/not use it!

Susan Anderson said...

My recent Thanksgiving visitors used passive voice a lot.

"The room got messy."
"The glass got broken."
"Todd's arm got broken."

And so forth...


Unknown said...

I love Sue's examples, because they sound just like the way my grandmother always spoke. In some ways, passive voice is great for humor writing, because it has so much potential for irony.

I love WNW, Miz Annette. And a giant woot woot on NaNo!! Next year...

Jordan said...

Disclaimer: this is NOT good writing, but, technically, it's passive voice:

She was excited.

Okay, maybe we could get this in dialogue, "I'm really excited about your party."

Because, seriously, when would you ever say/write "[The idea of attending] your party really excites me"?

"Editing programs" (oxymoron much?) will flag all instances of passive voice. Sooooooo helpful. NOT.

Annette Lyon said...

I'd have to recheck some rules, but I'm pretty sure "She was excited" isn't passive. It's weak, sure, but it's not passive voice.

But I'll go look up some stuff to be sure on that. :)

Anonymous said...

Okay, here's a Word Nerd question that I've been wondering about, and that something in your post reminded me of:

You said "'The car's headlights got smashed,' a teen says, and then slinks to their room . . ." and you used "their" as a non-gender-specific pronoun rather than as a plural. This is pretty much a standard usage in spoken English, but I feel insecure using it in written English, although one often has to work very hard to talk their way around it. The most grammatically correct solution is probably to go with "his or her," as in "a person has to work very hard to work his or her way around it," but then a person sounds like he or she is talking legalese. Another solution is to change the first noun to a plural: "Teens say . . . and then slink to their rooms."

Do you think a writer can usually get away with using "their" as a non-gender-specific pronoun instead of as a plural? It would certainly make things easier. :)

Anonymous said...

And, hmm, I'm thinking about "She was excited" and I think it depends on whether "excited" is an adjective or a past tense. Usually as it's used it could be interchangeable with an adjective: "She was happy/she was excited." But it could also be a past tense of "to excite," as in "She was excited by obscure grammar questions," in which case it's passive. No? Or are "She was stupefied/She was thrilled/She was horrified" all passive constructions?

Anonymous said...

Спасибо за материалы! :)

Jordan said...

I think you're right, MIB.

However, the exact status would vary with the preposition:

I was excited/happy about the party. (adj)

I was excited/thrilled by the prospect. (passive)


(I thought of this post digging through newspapers today: "Bank Allegedly Robbed.")

Helena said...

That reminds me of this bit from Lois McMaster Bujold's Brothers in Arms:

"Er--insults were exchanged, sir."
"And temper kind of got out of hand. Bottles were thrown, and thrown on the floor. The police were called. She was punched out."
Miles contemplated the sudden absence of actors from all this action, in Xaveria's syntax.

Erin said...

Hmmm. I really liked this description of when it is okay to use passive voice. Thanks for writing it out!


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