Active vs Passive voice

As I posted this over on my blog earlier today, I realised that although written from a creative writing perspective, voice is something that copywriters also have to wrestle with. Advertising copywriters are use to writing punchy, direct prose, but give someone a 1000 limit and they can easily slip into a lazier writing style.

If you have any tips on avoiding overusing passive voice, please share in the comments.

I’ve been doing some research on the passive vs. the active voice. What does it mean? Why does it matter? How can I get that active voice into my brain? It’s one thing when Word chucks up a “passive voice” warning at you, but how do you stop yourself defaulting to that bloated sentence?

Define active vs. passive

Active sentences involve the subject performing an action. In passive sentences, the action performed is the focus. So: “I did / You did / She did” rather than “this happened to me/you/him” For example:

Passive: “Yesterday, a party took place, which Georgia attended.”
Active: “Georgia went to a party yesterday.”

Or, in dialogue:

Passive: “This situation has made me feel angry.”
Active: “I’m angry about this.”

A few years ago, I picked up a copy of the American grammar book The Elements of Style (originally published in 1949). I find it a tad dull (okay, very dull), but it’s renowned as some kind of grammar Bible, so it must be good – right?

It gives several examples of passive voice use, such as:

Passive: “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had.”
Active: “She soon repented her words.”

I agree that the second sentence is better than the first, but I couldn’t see how the first sentence could be defined as passive. In fact, it turns out it isn’t passive at all (annoying, isn’t it?) It’s weak writing, but not an example of passive voice.

Why does it matter? Well, active sentences are interesting. They get the point across clearly, and don’t waste words. They keep the plot, or the argument, moving along rapidly. Passive voice does have its uses. The BBC lists some good examples of appropriate use (such as wanting to highlight the action performed, rather than the subject). Using passive voice is also a great way to avoid casting, or taking the, blame. But active voice is a no-nonsense, authoritative way of writing which is better at keeping the reader engaged.

Warning signs

Need a quick way to tell if you’ve used the passive voice? (I know I do!) Look for:

  • Wordiness
  • Use of the words: are, is, was and were
  • Being indirect

I think passive voice has a lot to do with confidence. The active voice is brash and ballsy, while passive is rather meek and mild. If you’re not quite sure of what you’re saying, it can be easy to slip into passive mode.

So, how do you stop yourself writing like that?

I’ve been approaching this the wrong way. I’ve been asking myself how I can force myself to stop using passive voice when I should be using active. But, if you practice the NaNoWriMo way of writing, (just get the words down) it’s clear that the active/passive problem should be something you focus on during the edit/rewrite rather than the initial draft. Write in whatever way feels natural to you – worry about the rest later.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • I’m uncertain that your examples are actually grammatical passives, although they may be psychological passives. I thought that a grammatical passive requires some form of the verb ‘to be’ and the past participle of another verb, e,g, Mistakes were made.

    Reply
    • Hi Alex – This is a great point, which I didn’t consider when writing this. It is important to distinguish between a passive sentiment / voice, and a sentence that is grammatically passive. Your comment made me do some more digging around about it, and I discovered an article that goes into more detail about the issue. So thanks very much for the comment!

      Reply

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