Active voice occurs when the subject or agent in the sentence performs the action, often towards an object. For example, let's look at the following sentence written in active voice:
Katie spilled the milk.
In this sentence, Katie is the subject, and she performs the action (spilling) on the direct object (the milk.) The most obvious way to spot active voice is through the use of active verbs, which are simply verbs that express actions. In most cases, the sentence will take on the simple form of the tense it's in, whether past, present, or future.
In passive voice, the object being acted upon is emphasized over the agent. A passive version of the previous sentence would look like this:
The milk was spilled by Katie.
In this sentence, our object (the milk) appears before the action (was spilled) and the agent (Katie.) You will also notice that this sentence is in the progressive form of the past tense and uses a "being" verb prior to the action. Additionally, the preposition "by" tells us who is performing the action on the object.
In some cases we won't know who or what the agent acting is. This is called agentless passive, and in this form, our sentence might look like this:
The milk was spilled.
Our agent (Katie) is unknown. We have only the object (the milk) and the action (spilled).
Prescriptions Against the Passive
One of most persistent "rules" in academic and creative writing is "Never use passive voice." We might wonder what on earth is wrong with passive voice when it is not grammatically incorrect and or inherently wrong.
The primary issue with passive voice is that it deemphasizes the subject. For instance, Katie appears to play a lesser role in spilling the milk in our passive sentence. In the agentless passive, Katie disappears altogether. Passive voice feels more detached from the subject and the action. Characters and speakers are more engaging with they directly act and interact. By placing emphasis on objects acted upon, we take away some of the involvement the reader has with the story.
This idea connects to the idea of showing, which was explained in another article. We are quite simply trying to draw the reader into the scene. When we show the characters acting, we are usually showing the reader what is happening, as opposed to simply telling them.
In most cases, we should consider what George Orwell suggests in his 1946 article, "Politics and the English Language":
Never use the passive where you can use the active.1
This is actually the best summation of what we're discussing, because there will always be times when passive voice is unavoidable and even preferable to active voice. Let's take that agentless passive form we discussed earlier. If you recall, the subject is unknown. There are times when we can't know the agent of the action. Let's say Katie finds a toy:
The doll's face was broken.
In this case, Katie has no idea who broke the doll. Passive voice is unavoidable, because the subject is missing or unknown. Also, the fact that the doll is broken might have some importance.
But considering the rule Orwell presents, we could shift this to active by emphasizing Katie, who has discovered the doll:
Katie found a broken doll on the floor.
In both cases, it depends on what we need to emphasize. If no one is in the room, and we're attempting to guide the reader through the scene, we might choose passive over active.
Passive voice can also convey a character's weakness. Let's say we have a character in a fight.
Daniel was pushed against the wall.
In this sentence, Daniel is emphasized as the object. This may serve to highlight his role as the weak man in the fight, which could aid the atmosphere and even characterization.
Overall, Orwell's conclusion should be our conclusion. If passive does the job we need it to do, we may leave it. But in many cases, active voice should be preferred. What we need to consider is how the relationship between subjects, verbs, and objects aids or detracts from our story. Active voice often does the job better.
1. "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell, 1946. www.unc.edu/~briman/berry/orwe…
The wayward reader is invited to peruse webster.commnet.edu/grammar/in… for more information on grammar and writing.
Refer also to our article on showing: www.deviantart.com/deviation/7…