Active vs. Passive Voice–What We Discovered at Our W.I.S.E. Coffee, February 24th., 2015

Don’t use passive voice…
Passive vs. active voice is always good to review. At our last Day Meeting, I shared a blog post by Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) about that very subject.

Active voice is when you have a subject, a verb, then an object in a sentence. “Jerry kicked the can.”

Passive voice puts the object in the subject’s position in the sentence. It fools the brain into thinking that the object is really the subject.

Passive voice is considered weaker than active voice and is often confusing. “The can was kicked by Jerry.” 

“The can was kicked by Jerry,” puts the object, the can, in the subject’s position in the sentence. It takes the brain a nanosecond or two to process that it was Jerry who kicked that can. 

This means that passive voice is harder for the brain to process, and if you have too much of it, you will frustrate the reader.  Give the reader a break! Cut out passive voice unless you have a good reason to use it.

…unless you have a good reason
What are good reasons to use passive voice, you ask?

Well, Grammar Girl discusses it’s use in literary novels. It still isn’t a good idea to overuse passive voice, but a nice sprinkling of it throughout can take a manuscript from plain to fancy. “Theresa was loved by Jonathan, everyone knew. And the entire town was moved by it: moved enough to save the tree they died under on that terrible night.”

Okay, that was sappy–and really, really sad–but you get the idea. People read literary novels for the moving characters and the pretty words. They actually like a slow build in plot and love to chew on prose. Literary novelists are often called “wordsmiths” because their goal is not only to tell a story, but to do so with the most well-crafted words possible.

Passive voice, when used judiciously, inspires.

But remember to only season your writing. Dumping bucketsful of passive voice into your prose can make people sick. Just saying.

And speaking of inspiring…
Grammar Girl doesn’t mention this, but I’ve noticed that BIG speeches–speeches given to Congress, on the steps of the Capitol Building, and on battlefields–are also sprinkled with passive voice.

Why? It’s the same reason writers use it in literary novels–it sounds lofty. Lofty, in turn, inspires. It also effectively makes an impact in people’s minds. It says, “momentous.”

“Battles were fought, lives were lost, but freedoms were won.” See, no real subject, but a nice, lofty, parallel sentence that inspires–passively. (In active voice, this sentence would read “Men fought the battles, people lost their lives, but we won our freedoms.”)

Passive voice slows your writing
This can be good or bad. Do you want to write a slow passage that, perhaps, causes tension? Well, try adding some passive voice. I’ve seen this technique work well.

Again I caution you. Don’t be lazy. Don’t use passive voice like a drunken sailor on leave.

Unless you have a really good reason to go passive, use active voice.

Here is the link to the original Grammar Girl post.

We also talked about style manuals, but I’ll cover that subject on another post.

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