Monday, December 22, 2014

How to Use the Passive Voice

In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King highlighted what he considered the two hallmarks of poor writing: adverbs (which we’ve already discussed here) and the passive voice, which we will discuss today.

What is the passive voice? It is a manner of writing that takes the direct object of the sentence (whoever or whatever is having something done to them) and makes them the subject of the sentence (the person or thing who is doing something.) So a normal, active-voice sentence would read like this:

       Gretta    painted      a picture.
     (Subject)   (verb)  (direct object)

And a sentence in the passive voice reads like this:

     The picture         was             painted               by Gretta.
     (New subject)  (form of    (past participle   (Original subject,
                             “to be”)     form of verb)     now an indirect object)

Now, as usual, you don’t need to remember all of the grammatical terms that I’ve listed above. All you need to remember is that a passive sentence is a sentence written backwards. The passive voice generally weakens your writing, making it boring and difficult to read.

I could dig much more deeply into what constitutes the passive voice and how to identify it, but I’ll be honest—I don’t think I need to. Perhaps it is because writers and English teachers have taken Mr. King’s complaints to heart, but the passive voice doesn’t seem to be much of a problem anymore. Just as I mentioned with adverbs, people seem to have learned that the passive voice is a convention that should be shunned and are generally doing a good job of it (at least in the manuscripts I’ve edited).

So instead of railing any further on the passive voice, I’m going to give you some advice on when the passive voice is permissible:

When you want to emphasize the object of the sentence over the subject. It’s not a common situation, but every now and then, the object of the sentence needs greater focus than anything else.

     All five keys were needed to open the door.

This could be written as, “The door needed all five keys to open,” but that would place greater emphasis on the door. In this case, the keys are clearly more important.

When the subject of the sentence is unknown. Sometimes, your characters might not know who performed an action. For instance:

     The painting had been stolen.

While this could be phrased, “Someone had stolen the painting,” the passive voice can be used to place emphasis on what is known and to avoid the useless “someone.” We know someone stole the painting whether or not you actually use the word, so this is one of those rare cases where the passive voice can actually be stronger, less redundant, and more focused than the active voice.

When it’s not important who performed the action. Your readers don’t need to know every little bit of extraneous information. For instance, you might have a paragraph like this in a story:

     Nils and Gretta hurried to the hospital and arrived with only minutes to spare. The baby was delivered before Gretta could even don a hospital gown.

In this case, it’s really not important who delivered the baby—that’s not central to the story. While we could say, “Doctor Bosch delivered the baby,” we don’t need to; plus, that would just add another random name to the story for readers to remember. If the name isn’t going to be important to the story, then it’s probably better not to mention it.

In scientific documents. I don’t mean that you should use the passive voice if you are personally writing a scientific document—I mean that you can use the passive voice for the text of a scientific document that appears in your story. For better or worse, the passive voice can be quite common in lab reports or scientific articles, as many people feel that it establishes an “objective tone.” (That is, it avoids use of the first person.) While scientific documents can be written objectively without slipping into passive voice, they may feel more genuine to your readers if you use the passive. The same can be said for legal or business documents.

In dialog. Sometimes, people speak in the passive voice, and you might want to reflect that in your dialog. Perhaps you have a slimy businessperson or politician who is constantly trying to evade responsibility for any of the consequences that their actions have wrought—they might speak in the passive voice with irritating frequency. Try to use this one sparingly, though.

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