Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Grammar Rules: Active and Passive Voice

Unfortunately, it's a fact that many new writers—and some experienced ones—drift into the passive voice. When I started writing, my teachers all said, “You’re writing in the passive voice. Use an active voice instead. It will make your writing more interesting.”

“Okay, explain the difference to me,” I always replied.

They all offered the same explanation: “With the active voice, the subject undertakes the action. With the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon,” (or words to that effect).

This did little to help me, but no one seemed able to describe it in any other terms, which led me to countless hours spent surrounded by open books. It was surprising how many books use the same phrasing that the teachers did. What I wanted was a way to detect when I have moved from active to passive. So, for all those writers who have trouble with this concept, I’m going to try to explain it in the simplest possible terms.

How can you tell if you have slipped into the passive voice? Look for the word “by.”

Here is an example of passive voice: “The trespasser was chased by a bull yesterday.”

It takes little work to rewrite the above sentence in the active voice, as the following sentence shows: “A bull chased the trespasser yesterday.”

Notably, there are also passive sentences that do not contain the word “by.” With such sentences we have to rely on the golden rule. I’m afraid I’m going to sound like one of those teachers I mentioned earlier, but once again, active voice is when the subject undertakes the action, and passive voice is when the subject is being acted upon.

Here is another example of a passive sentence: “The matter will be looked into further and a solution will be found.”

Notice that there is ambiguity with this example. Who is looking into the problem? The ambiguity gives a hint that the sentence is written in the passive voice.

Don’t be afraid to reword the sentence to transform it into the active voice, as in this example: “The mailroom personnel will check into the problem and rectify it immediately.”

Active voice can make a sentence more exciting by speeding up the pace, and it is especially useful when the writer wants the reader to feel anxiety or suspense. But the passive voice does have its place. It can help the reader to catch his or her breath after an exciting, fast-paced section. It is also extremely useful in corporate writing, and to soften the effects of blame on an individual or group.

Here is an example of useful passive voice: “The letter failed to be sent on time by the mailroom personnel.”

The example clearly blames a particular group, but is softened by the use of the passive voice.

The following sentence, which is written in active voice, shows a more brutal attack: “The mailroom personnel didn’t send the letter on time.”

Hopefully these hints will help alert you to the passive voice. You will probably find yourself writing more and more in the active voice. Good luck and happy writing.

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