Passive voice. It’s one of those things you’re told to avoid in your writing like showing instead of telling, but what in the world is it? What’s the difference between active vs. passive voice? Why is it so bad? Is it lurking in your writing as we speak?? *ensue internal outpouring of writer worries*
Passive voice can be a confusing term at first, but don’t be intimidated by all the abstract grammar jargon–we’re going to get through this together. Seriously, I’m going to make this super simple for you. You’re going to be a passive-voice-destroying master by the time we’re through!
Now, into the fray!
Active vs. Passive Voice
Let’s start with the basics and define active and passive voice. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to drown you in grammar terms, I promise).
In active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing the action.
Ex: Greer chopped off the goblin’s head with her sword.
The subject (Greer) is doing the action (chopped off).
In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is not doing the action. Rather, it is being acted upon.
Ex: The goblin’s head was chopped off by her sword.
The subject (goblin’s head) is being acted upon (chopped off) by something else (her sword).
Also, it might be helpful for you to consider these similes for passive and active…
Passive: apathetic, indifferent, laid-back, static, uninvolved, docile, idle
Active: alive, operating, functioning, mobile, operating, working
See how these describe the two different types of sentences? Active voice is all like “Step aside, I got this!” Passive voice is more like “Meh, do whatever to me.”
That’s it. That’s all active/passive means. See, not so mystifying after all, is it?
Passive: When the castle was attacked, Will grabbed his bow and ran to the battlements.
Active: When goblins attacked the castle, Will grabbed his bow and ran to the battlements.
Passive: War on the goblins was declared by the king.
Active: The king declared war on the goblins.
Passive: The king was advised that his decision was just.
Active: The king’s adviser assured him his decision was just.
Passive: Funds were approved to raise an army.
Active: The king approved the funds to raise an army.
Identifying and Correcting Passive Voice
So now that you know what passive voice looks like, it won’t be hard for you to find it in your writing. One big red flag of passive voice is by. But sometimes you can have passive voice without the word by, as we’ve seen in the examples above.
So how can you find it? Here are two strategies.
#1: Look for a form of “to be:” am, is, are, was, were, be, being, or been followed by a verb in past tense (usually ending in -ed). So: He was (to be form) offered (past tense verb) the position of general.
#2: If you hate grammar lingo here’s a super easy strategy for you that you might have seen floating around the internet. If you can add “by zombies” to the sentence, you have passive voice. So: He was offered the position of general [by zombies].
To fix passive voice, rework the sentence. You may have to switch things around or delete/add words. Usually you will need to be specific and add more detail: The king offered him the position of general. Make it clear who is doing the action.
What’s Wrong with Passive Voice?
Passive voice technically isn’t a grammatical error. So what’s so bad about it then? Well, it can have some negative effects on your writing. Passive voice can be confusing because it is vague about who is doing the action. It can also sound weak or even awkward, and often uses more words than necessary.
Active voice, on the other hand, is more specific and direct. Use it whenever you can, but also use your judgement. If you have a sentence that sounds really awkward when you try to change it from passive to active voice, it may be an instance where you should break the rule (Ex. “Will was struck by lightening” is fine; “Lightening struck Will” is also fine, but may not work as well in the context of what you’re writing. It depends on which one you want to emphasize–Will or the lightening?).
You are now ready to go forth and conquer the passive voice!
Do you struggle with using passive voice in your writing?