A Rant in Defense of Passive Voice

It is absolutely within your rights to hate the passive voice. However, if you do…


First of all, what is passive voice, anyway?

The difference between passive and active voice is often a matter of great confusion for people, and possibly even more for writers. Normal people don’t pay attention to the activeness of a sentence, but writers do (or should, anyway). So here’s your Super Simple Guide to Passive Voice!

Passive voice is related entirely to the relationship between the object and verb. First, let’s look at an active sentence:

Monkeys eat bananas.

Sometimes they eat bananas.

Subject: monkeys

Verb: eat

Object: bananas

When the subject is performing the verb, your sentence is active. Boy howdy, that was simple! So how do we make this sentence passive? Well, here’s how:

Bananas are eaten by monkeys.

I know it’s a cool story. There’s more!

Object: bananas

Verb: are eaten

Subject: monkeys

In a passive sentence, the subject is NOT performing the verb, but rather, theĀ object is having the verb done to it. This can be made even simpler (or not) by the mention of transitive and intransitive verbs!

A transitive verb requires an object to work. To eat is a transitive verb, because you can’t just eat: you have to eat something. Same with to slap, to touch, to tickle, and so on. You must perform all of those actions to something else.

On the flip side, an intransitive verb does not require an object. To run is an intransitive verb, as are to walk, to skip, to fart, and so on. You can do all of these actions without anyone or anything else (and if you’ve been eating cabbage, you definitely shouldn’t fart with other people around).

Since passive or active construction are entirely related to the verb’s interaction with the object, then we can safely say that IN ORDER TO HAVE A PASSIVE OR ACTIVE SENTENCE, YOU MUST HAVE A TRANSITIVE VERB!!!

Sound confusing? Well, let’s see if we can clarify anything by examining what passive voice is not!

    1. Passive voice is not defined by the words “was” or “were.” I don’t even know how many times someone will critique something of mine, circle EVERY SINGLE “WAS/WERE” and comment, “this is passive.” NO IT ISN’T. A verb construction that looks like “was/were + verbing” is a progressive tense. It indicates that the action was ongoing, as opposed to the simple past (“verbed”) which indicates that the action was a single event that ended. Passive sentences will oftentimes include was/were (“Jerry was punched by his angry wife.” passive) but they are NOT always indicative of a passive sentence (“Jerry was standing by the road when his wife punched him.” not passive).
    2. Passive voice is not the same as a “weak sentence.” If a critiquer doesn’t like one of your sentences, sometimes they’ll accuse it of being passive even when it’s not. Partially, I think they think it makes them sound smart (it doesn’t). The overuse of passive voice CAN weaken writing, but the two are not the same thing.
    3. Finally, passive voice is not a bad thing! Passive voice, like so many of the other hated parts of speech (adverbs, for example), have a very specific and important role in writing. The subject of a sentence is what the sentence is about, and depending upon what’s happening to that subject, the occasion may warrant passive voice. In the example I used above, of poor Jerry being punched by his wife, Jerry is the subject, not his wife. His wife is just some nameless punchy-person. Jerry is the subject. If I made the sentence active by making Jerry’s wife the subject, I have just changed the core meaning of the sentence. Using the passive voice in order to keep the subject the subject puts emphasis on that subject.

Passive voice is used a lot in legal documents. One of the most famous documents you’ve ever heard of it chock-full of passive sentences. Let’s take a look!

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Go ahead. Tell Thomas Jefferson that his writing is weak. I’ll wait.

Now, I definitely don’t think one should write in nothing but passive voice. No. That would be trbl. But you shouldn’t completely and utterly avoid all instances of the passive, either. It has its place. Active should take the forefront, but passive should be supporting it in the background. I’m going to ballpark a 9:1 ratio, but that’s not scripture or anything. Just do what you think is right, and use what works for the sentence. Have fun writing!

6 thoughts on “A Rant in Defense of Passive Voice

  1. Jane Sharp

    I agree. You need light and shade to give a story depth. I don’t analyse my writing too much, people either like it or they don’t. Good post.

  2. Pingback: Walking By Zombies, or, How To Make Taylor’s Head Explode | Taylor L Scheid

  3. Pingback: Writing Rules? Rules! I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules | verysherryterry

  4. Pingback: Walking By Zombies, or, How To Make Taylor’s Head Explode | Taylor L Scheid

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