This month’s Writing with Rae was a request by one of my Twitter followers, @Ninjajedi34. She wants to know how to identify and fix PASSIVE VOICE in writing. And who doesn’t? Passive voice plagues every writer at some point in his or her career. The cure is to define it, identify it, and then search and destroy.
To understand the difference between active and passive voice, you need to strip your sentence down to its bare minimum: subject and verb. Examples:
Simple enough, right? Now, let’s throw a wrench.
No, not really. But we are throwing out objects. Objects are what the subject is acting upon. They may be present in the sentence or implied. For example, in the sentence “Dick sat” it is implied he sat “on” something, even though it is not explicitly stated in the sentence.
So when we write, “Dick sat on the bench,” the object our subject acted upon is the “bench.” In other words, the subject ACTIVELY engaged with the object by performing the action.
In a nutshell, ACTIVE VOICE consists of a subject+verb+object structure. It may be a simple sentence, but rest assured it’s active!
On the flipside of active voice, PASSIVE VOICE switches the sentence structure, taking the object and putting it in the subject’s place in the sentence: object+verb+subject. Instead of “Sally jumped the gap,” a passive voice reads, “The gap is jumped by Sally.”
Here the object does nothing (as objects do). An action is done to it by the new object (what SHOULD be the subject).
The hallmark of a passive voice sentence is to be verbs + “by.” To be verbs (am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been) partner with the word “by” in a sentence where the object is in the subject’s place in the structure and creates a passive voice.
Remember, just as in the above examples of objects being implied in the subject+verb structure, so too can the new object (the intended subject) be implied in passive voice sentences. For example:
The gap is jumped over [by Sally].
Here’s one of the most amusing tricks to spotting PASSIVE VOICE: If you can add the phrase “by zombies” to the end of your sentence and the sentence still makes sense, you have a PASSIVE VOICE present. It’s an old tip, but so easy.
The track was run BY ZOMBIES—silly, but makes sense= PASSIVE VOICE
Jan ran the track BY ZOMBIES—does not make sense, ACTIVE VOICE
Why do so many of us fall under the spell of writing PASSIVE VOICE sentences? Because the subject+verb+object structure does not always make strong sentences. This is especially true when using “ing” verbs.
Jane was running the track.
Sally is jumping the gap.
Dick was sitting on the bench.
The above examples are active voice sentences, but they FEEL passive. The subject seems too distant from the action.
Never fear! There is an easy fix! Anytime you search for an “ing” word and see it combined with a to be verb, change it.
Jane ran the track.
Sally jumps the gap.
Dick sits on the bench.
Once you’ve done this, you can add details to strengthen the sentence.
Sally jumps with abandon over the mud-filled gap in the path.
Dick sits, like melted wax, on the hot metal bench.
There is good news when it comes to identifying PASSIVE VOICE. PASSIVE VOICE is awkward. It reads awkward and it sounds awkward—especially for native English speakers. Because of this, PASSIVE VOICE is easy to detect. Just read your work aloud. If it sounds “funny” look for the tell-tale signs: to be verbs and “by,” then examine the sentence’s structure.
In reality, writers have a harder time avoiding WEAK active voice sentences, than passive voice sentences. I see it all the time in my drafts and the drafts of others. Thankfully, the fix is just as easy as detecting PASSIVE VOICE. Search for the “ing” words and check the word for a to be verb preceding it. It can take a while, but the more you fix, the more you’re aware of the problem. Before you know it, you will begin to eliminate WEAK active voice sentences in your drafts naturally.
So why is PASSIVE VOICE the wrong choice? Readers are able to engage in the story more easily when the action the subject takes is clear. ACTIVE VOICE does just that. PASSIVE VOICE disrupts the reading experience. The reader is distracted because there is too much distance from the subject and the actions. When a sentence is in PASSIVE VOICE readers are left to decipher what action is being performed by whom and to whom.
Sentences in PASSIVE VOICE also require more words in order to make it “work.” This is not the case with ACTIVE VOICE, leaving the writer room for valuable details to enrich your prose.
PASSIVE: The car was chased by the dog.
ACTIVE: The livid dog chased the red car.
In the ACTIVE VOICE sentence above we get a broader picture of what happened even though the same number of words were used.
I should note that PASSIVE VOICE is not always a mistake. In academia, for example, PASSIVE VOICE is preferred. Other situations may include when the subject is unknown, when the subject is obvious to the reader or has already been mentioned, when it’s not important for the reader to know who the subject is, or when the subject is general.
The link below is a great resource for more examples of passive versus active voice:
Congratulations! You know how to identify and fix passive voice in your writing.
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See you next month!