Meh, Passive

Oh yeah, it’s Tuesday. Who has two thumbs and forgot to schedule a post today? *points at self* This girl. Woopsie. And I was doing so well…

Obviously I took my airhead pills this weekend because while I had prepared a post for Friday I totally spaced for today’s post. Ha ha…yeah.

Let’s get on with it then, shall we? I’d like to talk about passive voice today because well, it’s one of my big rough draft foibles. Yeah, I’m guilty. I use the word “was” and arrange my sentences ass-backwards far too often in my first drafts, which isn’t a big deal until I forget to take them out in the editing process. When that happens I get to hear my besty hem and haw about my dreadful passive voice.

The dragon was slain by the dashing young knight.

JFK was assassinated by a government conspiracy.

You can stop cringing now, I’m done. For those of you who don’t see a problem with these samples pay attention while I write them correctly in the active voice.

The young knight slew the dragon.

A government conspiracy assassinated JFK.

Get it? Good.

A Writer’s Reference, Seventh Edition by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers explains

“Verbs in the passive voice lack strength because their subjects receive the action instead of doing it. Forms of the verb ‘be’ (be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been) lack vigor because they convey no action.” (pg 156)

They go on to recommend that you should choose your active verbs carefully because some are stronger than others. So…uhm…there’s active and then there’s SUPER ACTIVE! *said in a booming voice* Or is that hyperactive?

They also make clear that passive voice can be used if done deliberately to take the focus off of the subject and place the focus elsewhere.

“The passive voice is appropriate if you wish to emphasize the receiver of the action or to minimize the importance of the actor.”

For instance:

It was due to this extraordinarily large earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that the people of Japan were forced to endure radiation poisoning to contain the failing nuclear plants.

In this sentence the focus is on the earthquake and tsunami not on the people of Japan. The earthquake and tsunami were the sources of suffering.

You’ll find the passive voice used more effectively in non-fiction writing than in fiction. In fiction writing the goal is to make as much of the manuscript active as possible and barely use passive voice if at all. At a recent review, I heard someone say that the author used too much active voice and that some is fine; the author acknowledged their goal was to eliminate all passive voice in the piece. When reading the work, I didn’t see a problem with the voice at all, in fact I thought it was a very strong piece. But it does bring a good point that like with every tool in writing it must be used wisely. I feel like I say that a lot. Variety is key.

So I suppose the rule of thumb is this: if you have a sentence that absolutely must be said in a passive voice, then do so with conviction, but if it can be made stronger by using active voice do that instead. Always do what you can to make your pieces as strong as possible. But again, don’t worry about that in your rough draft, changing passive to active should be done in the editing process until you learn to write in the active voice.

That’s all for now. Until next time,






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