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“Never use the passive voice.”

I’ve lost track of how often I’ve heard this. This misconstrued, but well-meaning advice is a pet peeve of mine. But worse is when, in writing forums, someone mistakenly identifies an active sentence as a passive sentence–and this happens a lot more often than you might think.

Most often, this is a misunderstanding of the English verb tenses, and the mistaken belief that the use of “was” always constitutes a passive sentence. (“Mary was reading the book” is NOT a passive sentence, but a sentence using the past continuous verb tense.)

“Always write in the active voice.”

Soapbox aside (I could go on and on, believe me), I’ve learned to never believe someone’s critique who picks out every single “passive sentences” in my chapter and says little else. What this demonstrates to me is their lack of understanding of the rules of writing. Out of all the things that I’ve had said about my writing, and the writing of others’, passive voice is the most picked on–and the most incorrectly identified.

So What Is A Passive Sentence?

A passive sentence is a sentence where the verb is not being performed by the subject. Too confusing? Well, in other words, it’s when the subject (usually a person) is having something done to it/him/her. (An active sentence would be the subject doing something–think of it like the subject completes an action in an active sentence, and passively allows something to happen in a passive sentence.)

Common Misconceptions

Believing that “was” means the sentence is passive.

Believing that you can never use the passive voice.

How Do I Tell Passive From Active Voice?

Glad you asked. I forget where I read it, or else I would credit it here, but a simple test I once read is if you can add “by zombies” directly after the verb and it makes sense, then you have a passive sentence.

E.g.

Susan was attacked [by zombies]. (Passive)

Susan was attacking [by zombies] my brother. (Active)

My brother attacked [by zombies] Susan. (Active)

Susan attacked [by zombies] my brother. (Active)

My brother was attacked by Susan. (Passive–don’t need the “by zombies” because “by Susan” is already there.)

My brother was being attacked [by zombies]. (Passive)

See? Quick and easy.

Why Do We Want to Write in the Active Voice?

If a passive sentence is a sentence where the subject is not performing the action, then an active voice is a sentence where the subject is performing the action in the verb (thus active voice). So, as above, instead of having Susan being acted upon, we have Susan performing the action.

E.g.

Susan drove to the store. (Active)

It was late when Susan drove to the store. (Active–don’t let that “was” fool you.)

Susan made a late-night trip to the store. (Active)

The store was visited by Susan late at night. (Passive)

When Susan was eight she visited the store. (Active)

Susan was visting the store during its grand opening. (Active–past continuous tense)

Grocery shopping was hateful to Susan. (Passive)

Grocery shopping was despised by Susan. (Passive–Past perfect tense)

Ever since she was a little girl, Susan had hated grocery shopping. (Active–Past perfect tense)

Susan’s hatred of grocery shopping began when she was a little girl. (Active)

When she was a little girl, Susan’s grocery shopping experiences were dreadful. (Active)

All right, I’m running out of examples. How many ways can I say that Susan hates to buy groceries? Obviously a lot. Part of my purpose in doing so is to demonstrate a variety of methods to deliver the same information.

Which example do you like the best? Is it a passive or active sentence? Take note. And try to determine why you like that sentence better. It is because you know more about the situation and what is happening? Is it because the subject is front and center of the sentence, you don’t have to wait for the end to figure out who is being affected? Or are you one of those who likes the passive voice? Does it have a soothing ring to it? A suspense that is heightened by having to wait for the subject at the end of the sentence?

I’m willing to bet that most people find the active voice more engaging and more immediate and would choose to read it over the passive sentences. But…there are occasions where the passive voice is preferable.

Can I Ever Use The Passive Voice?

YES!! This is where it those oft-quoted quips above are mistaken. It really, really, honestly, truly, is okay to sometimes use the passive voice!

If my exclamation points didn’t get the point across, let me say it again. YES. There are times you can AND SHOULD use the passive voice.

When are those times? I’m glad you asked. Use the passive voice when you do not want the emphasis to be on the subject, but on the direct object. Sometimes, the direct object of a sentence is what matters, and the subject doesn’t matter.

The English attacked the French. (Active)

You would use this active form if you want to emphasize that it was, in fact, the English attacking the French. This would be wanted in most cases, where it matters who did the attacking of the French.

The French were attacked. (Passive)

This passive sentence you might use if it doesn’t matter who attacked the French, but it only matters that the French were attacked. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether it was the English or Americans or Germans who attacked the French, for the end result was the same–for the sake of argument here, say the end result was the death of a the French president and a strictly internal, civil war. The result is outside of the actual subject(s) doing the attacking, so it would be superfluous information to include who was attacking.

So Which is Right For You?

In most cases, you do want to stick to using the active voice. Keep in mind though, that there are exceptions to this “rule.” There is the occasional book that is written in mostly passive voice, but the vast majority of stories are written in the active voice.

The main reason for this is that it puts the emphasis on the protagonist (the subject in the story). We read the story for the protagonist–we want to know what happens to that person first and foremost, and we don’t care as much about the forces acting upon the protagonist, except in how the protagonist reacts. It’s all about the MC, and if you keep your focus on that, then your story is automatically a step above others.

What do you think? Do you choose to write in the passive voice? Do you not think about it?

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