Saturday, July 9, 2016

Passively Active

I get a lot of questions about active voice and passive voice.  What is it?  Why do we use it, or why shouldn't we use it?  How can we tell the difference between passive and active voice?  Is passive voice really that bad?

Here are the basics. 

A sentence is defined as active voice when the subject is the one doing the action.  The cat played with the toy.    The subject (The cat) is directly acting (played with) upon the object (the toy). Directly acting= active voice. 

Active voice is more concise and tight.  It is less wordy and therefore, less confusing to the reader, which in turn shows a greater sense of confidence in the writing.  This is especially important for non-fiction authors.  If readers of non-fiction don't feel as if the author has confidence in his topic, then they will not believe what he has to say on the subject matter.

Active voice also takes more responsibility.  The subject is responsible for the action in active voice, or credit is given where credit is due.  Hopefully, active voice is what we would say in normal conversation to each other. 

Example.  Active voice:  I drove my car to work.  The subject (I) acted directly (drove) on the object (my car). 
 Passive form of this sentence:  My car was driven to work by me.  We wouldn't say this sentence to our friends while speaking, so don't write it either.

Conversely Passive Voice is a sentence that switches the subject and object.  Let's go back to the cat.  In passive voice that sentence would read: The toy was played with by the cat.  The object (the toy) is acted on (played with) indirectly by the subject (the cat). 

Indirectly acting with the object = passive voice. When writing in passive voice, we add some form of the helping verb "to be" to the sentence. (am, is, are, was, were, being, or been) **Passive voice doesn't always use a form of "to be" but often does. 

Also know that just because your sentence uses a form of "to be", it doesn't automatically make it passive.  Look for the indirect action upon the subject to verify. 

The primary reason passive voice is frown upon is that it is too wordy, and readers often have to guess at your meaning. More words does not always mean better clarity.  A sentence filled with adjectives and adverbs doesn't help lead a reader to understand your subject matter. 

Write to your reader as you would talk to them in person.  Try reading the sentence or passage out loud, or have someone read it to you.  Words often sound differently in your head than they do to your ears. 

Does that mean passive voice is grammatical incorrect?  NO!  It's not.  It's a style choice, and up to the author's discretion.  Before you use passive voice, keep the things you learned in mind though. 

When should you use passive voice? When the OBJECT is the most import part of the sentence, the passive voice is your friend.  This style of writing will signal to your readers that the object at hand is important and that they better pay attention. 

I'm going to quote Mr. Thomas Jefferson here for the example. 
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

All men is the OBJECT in this sentence and the Creator is the subject, but Thomas Jefferson wanted the emphasis on "all men", so he used passive voice.  That same statement, written in active voice, just doesn't have the same impact.

"The Creator made all men equal, with the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

See what I mean, same meaning behind the sentence, less wordy, easy to understand.  Less impact. 

Ultimately, the decision is up to you.  YOU are the author and it is your style choice.  Just use passive voice sparingly or it will become like the boy who cried wolf.  Use it too much, and your readers won't listen at all.

Good Luck!  As always, I am here for any questions.

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