"... actively yours..."

Active voice, passive voice

Confused about this? Well you're not alone. Most writers, even professional writers, struggle to understand the difference between active and passive voices. In fact, I'd been writing professionally for years before I even knew there was such a thing as active or passive writing.

Like a lot of modern writers, I work by feel. Instinct. Nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives; it was all so much more blah. You might as well talk to me about crotchets and quavers and semibreves when I'm trying to crank up a Hendrix riff on my Stratocaster—meaning that the conventions of music aren't as important as the music itself.

Ditto for the conventions of writing.

In fact, the conventions of writing often get in the way. They tie your head up in the minutiae and technicalities of what you're doing rather than allowing you to just ... well, groove. The language keeps jerking you back to the rules, when at times you need to forget the rules.

Most of us are pretty badly educated. At least, the nature and style of education has changed markedly over the past few decades. English grammar, for instance, is still taught in schools, but not in the way it was taught in the dark ages of education when you could be soundly thrashed in front of the class simply for forgetting how to conjugate your verbs (whatever the hell that means).

But understanding the names and structure of the nuts and bolts of writing isn't vital. Not for everyone, anyway. That said, there is a case for keeping your eye on a few of the mechanics, and active and passive voices are worth a closer look.

So what does active voice mean?

That's easy to explain. Put simply, an active voice is when the subject is doing something to something else. Or to someone else. For instance:


Jack shot Jill.


That's active. Jack is the subject, and he did something pretty nasty to Jill. He shot her. Note that it doesn't matter that Jill might be your lead character. We're talking about the subject of your sentence, not the subject of your book (i.e. not your lead character). Looked at another way:


Jack did something to Jill.


That's the point. Jack was an active subject, and Jill was a passive object. If Jack punched Jill, or kicked Jill, or just looked at Jill, that would also be active.

Jack was the motive force. The initiator. And, in most of the examples given, not much of a gentleman.

So what does passive voice mean?

That's easy to explain too. Look at this example.


Jill was shot by Jack.


That would clearly be passive. In this instance, Jill is the subject, and did nothing active. The word "was" is the giveaway. That's the indicator. The marker. It's a passive little word. Almost apologetic.


Jill was shot by Jack.


Just look at that again. Jill did nothing active. Jill was passive. Jack was the active force, but Jack is no longer the subject of the sentence. Jill is. So this is a passive construction.

To reiterate; an active sentence is when the subject does something active. A passive sentence is when the subject is acted upon.

Here's another example:


The car hit the wall.


That's active. The car is the subject. The wall is the object. The wall did nothing. The car did everything. To put it another way, the car came before the wall.

But if the wall was hit by the car, that would be passive. In this sentence, the wall is the subject of the sentence, but the object (the car) did the action.

So what's best? Active or passive constructions?

Good question. The answer is that it all depends on what you're trying to achieve. It's like asking; Which is best? Wearing white or black? It depends on whether you're going to a wedding or a funeral. The context of a sentence decides whether to use active or passive constructions.

And instinct decides it too. Don't underestimate that. Instinct. Feel. Sensitivity.

Most writers would agree that the active voice is more modern. It's certainly more assertive. Stronger, if you like. But that isn't to say that the passive voice has no place.

It does have a place. It can be a useful device for showing the reader where the attention should be. A passive voice can, if you like, show you who is the perpetrator and who is the victim.

For instance:


Jill was slapped by Jack


This sentence is passive. Jill is the "victim". The implication in this sentence is that Jill is being unfairly assaulted by Jack. That's not the only possible interpretation, of course. It could be that Jill was hysterical. But the passive voice certainly suggests—or implies—that because Jill is on the receiving end, she got a raw deal

However, if Jack slapped Jill, that is arguably more ambiguous. It might be read that Jack had a pretty good reason to slap her (not that slapping people around is generally reasonable behaviour).

But because Jack is active, that puts him in an assertive position, and there is the sense that he was doing something positive. At least, that's how it will be seen by many readers. Perhaps even the majority.

However, remember that the "good reason" is merely good within his personal frame of reference. In other words, Jack slapped Jill for reasons that he, at least, thought were pretty sound. Maybe he just didn't like her, and that was reason enough. Or maybe she'd sold his Ford Mustang without telling him. Or maybe anything.

But keep in mind the context of the sentence. It depends largely of what actions or events or dialogue came before that active/passive sentence, and to a lesser extent what comes after.

The active or passive construction modifies the tone of the sentence. It helps us shift our perspective from subject to object. It allows us to see the same situation in different ways. But it's up to you, the writer, the creator, the arbitrator, the director to suggest which way we should see that situation.

We may not agree with the writer's perspective. We may see the situation very differently. But the active-passive voice nevertheless lends weight or impetus to our emotional and intellectual responses.

Examples of active-passive voices

You can use the active-passive voice to rub the reader's nose into whatever it is that you think smells the worst.

For instance:


Jack was shot by a 9mm Glock. Jack was not breathing. Jack was dead. Jack's life was over.


That's all pretty passive. Jack was doing nothing at all anymore. He was defunct. Nevertheless, Jack is the focus of the sentence. The gun is almost (but not quite) incidental. Jack might have been hit by a falling piano. Or stabbed. Or garroted. Regardless, in this sentence, our sympathies (in the broadest sense of the word) lie with Jack.

But if we wrote:


The 9mm Glock went bang and Jack was shot.

The weapon ejected a plume of smoke.


That's all pretty active, but here we're looking primarily at the gun, and not at poor Jack. You might say that our sympathies (again, in the broadest sense of the word) lie with the weapon. We "sympathise" with the gun because we're viewing the scene primarily from the gun's point of view. The view from the muzzle.

The emphasis is so firmly on the gun that it's easy to forget that the Glock was being fired by someone else. Of course it's possible that nobody shot Jack. It's possible that Jack was walking up the stairs and fooling around with his Glock, and then dropped it, whereupon the weapon bounced on the stairs and spun round and plugged him.

I suspect Glock would have something to say about that sentence; probably something to the effect that their guns don't accidentally shoot people just because they've been dropped. But the point is, in this active construction we're behind the Glock rather than on the receiving end.

Neither sentence, either with Jack as the object, or the Glock as the object, confirms anything about the perpetrator. But either sentence, in the appropriate context, might subtly direct the reader's attention to wherever the author wants it to be directed.

Politicians often (and sometimes quite unconsciously) use these passive and active voices to good effect:


"The economy has been in a poor state. We intend to do something about it."


That statement (beginning passively) implies that the economy is in a mess and that it's nothing to do with the speaker—but the speaker (in the active second part) is going to put it right because he's tough and shrewd and a great minister, etc. It's a lot different to this sentence.


"We wrecked the economy. Something needs to be done about it."


That's active at the start, and passive at the end. And it changes everything.

But going back to my early point about the Jimi Hendrix riff, you don't need to know anything about the conventions of music to make a great racket from a Fender Stratocaster. You just need to have a lot of heart and soul.

If you've got that, the rest usually follows naturally. Which means that you shouldn't worry too much about which voice you're using, because both are great tools. Instead, ask yourself what each sentence is really saying. Question the implications of your statements and dialogue. Look at where you want the emphasis to be.

The problems usually arise where the writer doesn't really know what he or she is saying. The emphasis is always in the same place. Or the emphasis is all over the place. Or the emphasis is ... well, nowhere.

If you want the reader to see things through Jack's eyes, then show it to us through his eyes. Or through Jill's eyes. Or from the perspective of the Glock.

Treat your pen or pencil or keyboard as a movie camera. Turn that camera this way and that way. Where should we, as readers, be looking? Where is the misdirection? Where are the clues? The hints?

Get that right and you're a long way to having a clear sense of direction for your project. Get it wrong and you're meandering and confused, and your readers won't thank you for it.

Active-passive voices in scientific and technical papers

Typically, instruction manuals, scientific papers and suchlike are written in the passive voice. This, presumably, is to (modestly) draw attention away from the speaker or expert.

For example:


I removed the three bolt securing the upper bracket to the lower bracket.


This sentence is active, but would usually be rendered in a passive construction.


The upper bracket is secured to the lower bracket by three bolts.


Another example might be:


The agar sample was then placed in an incubator where it was left for twelve hours.


That's passive. To render it in an active sentence it would read:


I then placed the agar sample in an incubator where I left it for twelve hours.


Arguably, a technical manual would be more interesting if written in an active voice. But conventions and traditions are strong, and so the less exciting/less immediate passive voice is invariably used.

Looked at another way, passive voices are generally more formal. Or polite. Active voices are more casual. Or, in the truest sense of the word, ruder.


For instance:


Cigarettes should be extinguished when the warning light comes on.


That's passive. To render that as an active sentence, it would read:


Extinguish your cigarettes when the warning light comes on.


Broadly speaking, Americans are more active in their speech. The English are more passive. That has changed a lot over the past twenty or thirty years, and the differences are smaller. But the distinction can still be made.

Mixing active and passive voice in a single sentence

This should be avoided, largely because it sounds weaker. For instance:


I walked into the bar and was surprised to see how busy it was.


That would read better as:


I walked into the bar. It was busy.


See how that has more impact?

Note that this sentence has been cut in two. It's more clipped, but (arguably) has a better rhythm.

You might wonder if all this really makes a difference. But it does. Your favourite writer no doubt appeals to you because of his or her plotlines or humour or characterisations, etc. However, underlying this is invariably the writer's voice. You, as a reader, might simply accept the fact that you like that voice, without questioning it. But a closer analysis often reveals that successful modern writers use active sentence constructions wherever possible.

They know that passive sentences, passive phrases and passive dialogue is often corrosive. They know it lacks confidence. Or punch. Literary agents and commissioning editors know it too (although might not always intellectualise it). They simply choose one manuscript over another by acting on instinct. Or feel.

Think hard on this issue. I'd suggest that active-passive constructions are a lot more important that either good grammar or good spelling—both of which can be easily fixed. But an active narrative often has a "drive" that carries a manuscript right through to a successful book sale.

Active and passives examples

● I broke a window with my football. Active.


● The window got broke by my football. Passive.


● The football smashed through the window. Active.


● The child kicked the football through the window. Active.


● The window was broken by the child. Passive.


● Jack and Jill went up the hill. Active.


● The hill was climbed by Jack and Jill. Passive

Want to check out my own novels?


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Links for writers

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