Thursday, September 13, 2012

Passive Voice May Be Your Best Choice


Some writers argue against ever using passive voice, and when critiquing another's work, strike through was, is being, were on principle (with a little notation, change passive voice to active), without thought that passive may be the better way to go.

Active voice means the subject is doing the action. Passive voice is when the subject is being acted upon by the verb. True, passive verbs are widely judged as the weakest form, but there lies an exception or two with every guideline.
One exception turns up when the writer wants to put the focus on the recipient of the action, because the recipient is more important than the person or thing performing the action.

Consider: Sheila Townsmen, wife of Governor Townsmen, was brutally attacked by a stray dog last night.
In this case, the author wants to emphasize who received the action, and therefore gives the person acted upon more weight than the person or thing that performed the act. The story is not going to be about the dog, but rather about the woman, and how the act affects her. Passive voice is the correct choice for the sentence above.

Sometimes the doer of an action is unknown, which makes using passive voice the obvious choice.
Example: An original Kincaid, donated by Lucille Ball, was stolen from The Museum of Art yesterday.
The identity of the thief is unknown, so it’s obvious that what was stolen is more newsworthy than who did it; therefore, passive voice makes sense. If you change the sentence to active— Yesterday, a thief or thieves stole Lucille Ball’s donation, an original Kincaid, from the Museum of Art—puts the focus on the doer, or doers, which would change the intended slant of the story.

Another exception to the preference of active voice is when the writer is using the passive voice to parallel the passive stance of the character. Take for instance a woman who had been raped. While being examined and questioned by doctors and police, she might not be feeling too strong. At a time like that, it wouldn’t be unbelievable for her to be acted upon, and do little acting herself. 
It doesn’t happen often, but passive voice can be your friend, as long as you make a conscious decision of when and how to use it.

Can you think of any other instances where passive voice is the better choice?

 

11 comments:

  1. Good post. Forwarding it to friends :)

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    1. Thanks. I was hoping someone would like it. :-)

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  2. Only silly people think passive is evil. I'm a big advocate of active voice. Why? It keeps the action moving, and when you write mystery, suspense, or thriller novels, it is essentially not to let the action lag. However, there are important points in all stories when passive has its place to make a point, provide narrative text to paint a picture that impacts the story, or slow the reader down, making him realize the importance of what just has occurred and to whom. And that's all I've got to say about that.

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  3. I love your last reason -- to slow the reader down, making him realize the importance of what just happened. Excellent! Thanks for your insights.

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  4. Sometimes passive voice is funnier than active, depending, like you said, on where the writer wants the emphasis placed. Standup comics have facial expression, pauses and tones of voice at their disposal. Humor writers have words and punctuation only.

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  5. Good post, Debi -- when I'm going through the self-editing process, I circle is, are, was and were and then do a sentence by sentence analysis. Sometimes the passive verb works better.

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    1. Thanks for commenting,Patricia. Yes, I agree -- it seems writing can be half creative, and half analytical.

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  6. Brilliant post. I think it's silly to always stick to "rules" without considering what actually works better in a particular case.

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  7. Excellent. Sometimes pasive verbs just work best. No matter how you try to reword, the sentence seems awkward.

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  8. The examples of reasons for using passive voice were excellent. We writers must make judgment calls with every sentence we write. Debi's blog entry and the resulting comments should be shared liberally with others. (Or should I have written "We should share, etc.")

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