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Active Voice


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.



Passive Voice


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…

This is a new version of the active/passive article. Unlike the last version, this is not billed as a "primer" on the subject. The goal here is to familiarize you with the very basics of active and passive voice, as well as when and where to use each. It is assumed that the reader has some basic knowledge of grammar terminology.

For more detailed information regarding grammar and style, visit the suggested links at the end of the article.

:gummybear:
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:iconghostfly:
ghostfly Featured By Owner Feb 3, 2008
Nicely explained for the layman. I know this one's been around for a while, but one nit: you may want to hint that there are reasons to choose passive voice earlier in the article so that impatient readers don't get half way through, think "Okay, I get it," and leave.

The footnote's first two URLs are 404s (not found). I dug through Google for alternatives:

"Politics and the English Language" with annotations by Xah Lee, a few of which are useful (especially those explaining foreign/archaic phrases):
[link]

Mount Holyoke College International Relations Program hosts an unannotated, printer-ready version:
[link]

The Capital Community College Guide to Grammar and Writing still exists:
[link]
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:icongeomasher:
Geomasher Featured By Owner Jan 10, 2005
You could also include that the passive voice slows the pace of the story more. This makes its helpful usage more limited to more static or mellow scenes, imo.
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:iconfollowingorwell:
followingOrwell Featured By Owner May 18, 2004   Writer
I'm not so sure about this. You basically give a couple examples of what passive voice is. And there is more to choosing how to write than "I want it to seem more active" or "I want to make it showcase the process. - time for passive"

"You use too much passive voice" is a common idea around here. I have a bit of a problem with passive voice in my own stuff, I am told, but the answer is not to "convert" it all to active. It is totally analogue. There is a time and a place for everything. Writing exclusively in kinetic active terms is equally stinky if the time is not right.

Assuming the reader at least knows what passive voice is, you literally could condense this entire article to the following:

"Active voice is more interesting and compelling than passive voice and you should usually use it. However, sometimes you can use passive voice too. For instance, passive voice is useful when giving crazy science directions and stuff. Otherwise, active voice is best. Thank you. Goodnight."

On top of that, the most technical you get is 'subject' and 'verb.' There are about 50 more parts of a sentence to consider. Ask girlonstage. She likes this sort of thing. I wouldn't so much call this a primer as half a page of one chapter of a primer. And part of the page is smudged by sticky fudge-fingerprints. And burned.

phew, my plan to comment on all OWAT stuff is tiring.
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:iconpsychodrive:
psychodrive Featured By Owner May 7, 2004
Hey, look it says Katie the second time instead of Kate. :D No matter.

An excellent primer to passive and active voice. Interestingly, the Japanese use passive voice when they wish to show that something has effected them on a personal level. Rather than saying "Greg stole my bike", they would say "I had my bike stolen by Greg." (My bike was stolen by Greg is better English but not a literal translation :)).

Pun of the day:
The news reeled Katie.
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:iconchiroptera:
chiroptera Featured By Owner May 5, 2004
thank you !!!

very helpful indeed.. i will try to keep that in mind when writing..
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:iconkaujot:
kaujot Featured By Owner May 4, 2004
It needs more examples than just Kate and her milk.

Other than that, nice job.
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:icondasya:
dasya Featured By Owner May 4, 2004
This is the first time I've heard that there are situations right for passive.
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:iconfollowingorwell:
followingOrwell Featured By Owner May 18, 2004   Writer
where is that dunce cap. its around here somewhere.

when I find it, you will be wearing it in the corner.
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:icondasya:
dasya Featured By Owner May 19, 2004
I used the word "heard," not "realized." Be certain of what has been said before you attempt to build ugly wit around it.
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:iconfollowingorwell:
followingOrwell Featured By Owner May 19, 2004   Writer
yeah, or you could actually think about how to express yourself and not expect people to decipher the technical meaning. What you clearly said was that you didn't think the passive voice had a place in writing. What you say you meant is that you had never heard of other people who realized that the passive voice did have a place, but you did realize it. As far as I am concerned, you get the dunce cap for either one. :D

QED, biatch
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