About a year ago, I wrote a piece about the distinction between the active and the passive voice, but going on the assumption that I’ve had a lot of reader turnover over a year’s time, I thought a refresher might be useful.
When writing in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is clearly the one doing the verb. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is sort of buried. So:
Active: I accidentally left three pounds of scallops in the trunk of your car overnight.
Passive: Three pounds of scallops were accidentally left in the trunk of your car overnight.
In the first case, the “doer” of the action is front and center, and it’s clear who befouled the trunk with seafood. In the second, the action is emphasized over the person performing it, sometimes with the intention of being vague about who did the action.
If you’re unsure whether a sentence is written in the passive voice or not, you can look for these things:
- A form of the verb “to be”
- A past participle (usually the -ed form of a verb)
- Optionally the word “by” followed by a noun
|Be verb||Past Participle||by noun|
|is||bludgeoned||by the bludger|
|is being||contacted||by Mildred|
|has been||annihilated||by the Cubs|
|will be||inoculated||by the nurse|
It’s important to know that sentences that use “be” verbs aren’t always passive. “I am hungry” uses the active voice; it’s clear who’s hungry in that sentence. You have to look for both the “be” verb and the past participle to identify sentences written in the passive voice, and remember that the “by” is optional.
Writing instructors tend to discourage use of the passive voice for a few reasons:
- It tends to add extra words to your sentences. Compare “Bocephus jumped over the hedge” to “The hedge was jumped over by Bocephus.”
- It leads to vagueness about who did the action (especially when the “by” bit is left off).
- It changes the normal word order in a sentence, moving the subject after the verb, which can be a little harder to parse.
Sometimes, using the passive voice is actually desirable, though. For example, in a sentence above, I wrote that “the action is emphasized over the person performing it.” In this case, what’s important isn’t who is emphasizing the action but the fact of the emphasis of the action. It would have been strange to have written “the writer emphasizes the action over the person performing it” in the context above. We don’t care about the writer here. We care about what she’s doing, so let’s shine a spotlight on the verb rather than the subject by using the passive voice.
As you write, pay attention to sentences that wind up following the passive voice formula given in the table above. If you find one, take a moment to think about whether the sentence is stronger or weaker for using the passive voice. If the “doer” is important, switch the sentence to the active voice and see if it reads a little better. If the action is more important than the subject or if they’re on equal footing but the sentence sounds better rhythmically in the passive voice, feel free to try the passive on for size instead.
UPDATE: See this comment for a clarification about subjects and the passive voice and a link to a much more technical explanation of sentence subjects. Also check the comments if you want to see this grammar nerd get busted for using the accursed dangling modifier. 🙂