Speculative North, Issue #4 (February 2021)
- Covert Art by Dimitri Sirenko: "The Following", oil on canvas.
- “The Cat's Tale,” C.J. Carter-Stephenson
- “Crystal Ash,” Atalanti Evripidou
- “Gone with the Fairies,” T.A. Sola
- “Hellion Babysitting Services,” Jennifer Shelby
- “Precious Junk and Swift Riches,”, Ife J. Ibitayo
- “A Woman of the Old School,” Hugh J. O'Donnell
- “The Messenger,” Carleton Chinner
- “Etched in Light,” Deborah L. Davitt
- Poetry: “Days and Nights in the Jeweled City,” Bruce Boston and Todd Hanks
- Interview with Dr. Michael Johnstone
- Craft Article: "The Passive Voice"
Craft: The Passive Voice
Andy Dibble and David F. Shultz
Sometimes Use the Passive Voice
David F. Shultz
“Use the active voice.”
You’ve probably heard this advice before. It’s number 14 in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, one of their “Elementary Principles of Composition”, and a commonly repeated bit of writing wisdom.
However, the active voice is not always preferable. What we really need isn’t a rule to follow, but an understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the active and passive voice. Not only is this way of looking at grammatical voice more useful for writers—it’s also more fun. It brings the question of grammatical voice out of the realm of rigid rule-following and into the realm of artistic craft, where subjective judgments need to be made in service of the writer’s goals.
Active and Passive Voice
Grammatical voice is not a question of verb tense. It does not indicate whether an action is past, present, or future. More concretely,
“The dog eats the food,”
“The dog ate the food,”
“The dog was eating the food”
are all in the active voice.
Active voice is determined by whether the grammatical subject of the sentence—in this case, the dog—performs the action. “The dog” is the subject, and the dog performs the action of eating in all the above cases, so all are in the active voice.
“The food was eaten by the dog”
is in the passive voice. “The food” is the subject of the sentence, but it is acted upon by the verb. The dog is the one doing the action. This is to say that the food is passive. So this sentence is in the passive voice.
You can often identify the passive voice from the presence of the word ‘by’, as in the sentence “Jeremy was eaten by zombies.” But this is not absolute. Some active constructions use ‘by’, as in the sentence “Adnan careened by the asteroid,” or “Zahra bought the book by Colson Whitehead.” Also, passive constructions need not have ‘by’, as in the sentence “Sir Bedevere was trounced,” which omits the active agent. Or the sentence “With the help of mermen, Malik was saved from drowning,” which introduces the active agent through phrasing other than “by.”
Exercise: identifying passive and active voice
Which of the following are passive voice and which are active voice?
- The cats were fighting in the alley.
- Susie was bitten by the chihuahua.
- Because of the blaze, her childhood home, her dolls, her drawings, were all destroyed.
- It was found by Herbert et al. that “take the stairs” work-initiatives had no measurable impact on the health of non-sedentary employees.
- He was a man of simple tastes.
- On the island, right where the map had said—twenty paces from the big rock—the treasure had been found, a few feet below the sand.
- The population had been decimated.
Exercise: translating active to passive, and assessing relative strengths and weaknesses of active and passive.
- For each of the 7 sentences in the previous exercise, try to translate the passive constructions to active constructions, and vice-versa.
- Were there any issues in translating from passive to active voice? What caused the problem?
- For each of the translations you made, which version sounds better? Why?
Sometimes use passive voice?
Strunk and White advise use of the active voice, saying it “makes for more forcible writing” and “is usually more direct and vigorous,” while the passive voice can be “less direct, less bold, and less concise.”
They do note, however, that passive voice is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” They give a pair of examples: “The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed today,” which is passive, and “Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration,” which is active. The preferred voice in this case is not based on which is more forcible, bold, or concise but rather by the topic of the paragraph. As Strunk and White note, the former would be chosen in a paragraph about the dramatists, and the latter would be chosen for a paragraph about the tastes of modern readers.
Strunk and White don’t discuss the conditions under which passive voice would be preferable. They conclude only by saying that getting into the habit of writing in the active voice “makes for forcible writing.” That may well be so. But the advantages of “forcible” writing could sometimes be outweighed by whatever advantages the passive voice offers—if only we knew what they were!
What we need is not an oversimplified rule (“use the active voice”) but to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the two voices. Active voice and passive voice are tools suited for different applications, and we need to know how to use both of them.
Fortunately, there is a guide for this. It’s from a book that is better than Elements of Style in every respect except simplicity: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, by Virgina Tufte. Rather than just listing rules to follow and illustrating them by concocting deliberately bad sentences, Tufte gives examples of good sentences collected from other writers and examines how they work. Strunk and White offer a one-page exhortation to use the active voice; Tufte devotes eleven pages to effective usage of the passive voice.
Strengths of passive voice
Since the end of a sentence naturally feels stressed, the passive voice can be used to add emphasis to a particular word or words by shifting them to the final position:
“I was tormented by strange hallucinations.”
- Validimir Nabokov, Nabokov’s Congeries
Here, the passive voice is being used to shift the primary stress to the hallucinations.
A similar example comes from E. B. White, notwithstanding his injunction against passive construction:
“Her body, if concealed at all, is concealed by a water lily, a frond, a bit of moss, or by a sarong—which is a simple garment carrying the implicit promise that it will not long stay in place.”
- E.B. White, The Second Tree from the Corner
The passive voice can be used whenever the writer wants to avoid mention of agency. So:
“My toddler broke your phone.”
“Your phone was broken.”
Generally, the passive voice can be used anytime the writer wants to omit an agent, whether we don’t want to indicate the agent, or because we don’t know, or because we don’t want the reader’s focus taken by the agent. For example:
“The monument was destroyed.”
We could say this if we didn’t know how it was destroyed, whether it was a person, or people, or a natural event. But we might also say such a thing if it didn’t matter how it was destroyed.
Sometimes we don’t want the subject to feel active. Maybe we want them to feel weak, or helpless, or the victim of circumstances. In general, we may want to express their passivity. This is done with passive constructions:
“She was pulled by the tide.”
“They sailed and trailed and flew and raced and crawled and walked and were carried, finally, home.”
- John Knowles, Indian Summer
If I keep going through all the examples of Tufte, I’d risk just repeating everything she has to say on the matter. Instead, if you find this kind of discussion useful or interesting, I’d recommend just getting her book.
In these exercises, we’ll practice making active constructions into passive constructions, in situations where doing so might be useful. The goal is to develop a sense of some other considerations a writer might make when deciding on a passive or active construction.
- Make the injunction more powerful by omitting the agent with a passive construction (substantial rewording may be required): “Billy said we’re not supposed to walk on the grass.”
- Shift the subject to the terminal position of the sentence with a passive construction: “Failing educational institutions and lack of employment opportunity have increased homelessness, drug addiction, and gang activity.”
- Make Adnan into the passive subject of the rescue, by using a passive construction: “The firefighters carried Adnan from the apartment.”
- Were the translated versions better? Why or why not?
- Pick one of the advantages of passive voice. Come up with a pair of example sentences to demonstrate this strength.
Passive voice and active voice are tools that are suited for different situations. A writer should know how to use both of them effectively. This requires practice with both, and reflecting on the effects each form has on the reader.
Active voice is generally more concise and more forceful. Passive voice has a number of uses: It is sometimes clearer. It is sometimes necessary, given the intended subject of the sentence. It can be used to shift the stress of the sentence. It can be used to omit the agent. It can complement the passivity of the subject. It can create rhetorical force.
There are other applications of the passive voice—and examples of usage—in Virginia Tufte’s book, Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style.
Passive Voice in Fiction
I agree with David that “use the active voice” isn’t a rule that a savvy fiction writer should treat dogmatically, but it’s a good rule of thumb. Exceptions to it are uncommon. Here I will elaborate upon the disadvantages of the passive voice and further map the terrain of exceptions to this rule beyond the cases David has already provided.
Why Avoid Passive Voice?
One reason fiction writers should avoid passive voice is that it can disguise a lack of imagination. The active sentence “The pirate keelhauled” screams for completion: Who was keelhauled? I MUST KNOW. Whereas the passive sentence “The stowaway was keelhauled” is sedentary. An inattentive writer might fail to ask: who did the keelhauling? But readers will ask, and they will feel confused. They might back up and reread earlier sentences.
This is exactly what I did when I read “I was offered a slice of pizza as I was being introduced,” from the story “Birds Without Wings” by Rebecca Zahabi in the May/June 2020 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. This sentence has two passive constructions. Zahabi’s prose is strong (with few passives), like most every story in F&SF, but I submit this particular sentence would be stronger were the passive constructions made active: “They introduced me and offered me a slice of pizza.” The subject “they” doesn’t tell us much, but we know that we needn’t worry about a specific someone doing the introducing and pizza-offering. We can read on.
For other reasons to eschew passives, consider this example, which I adapted from a work of amateur fiction:
“I feared my efforts would be discovered, or my enemies would decide to do away with me, or I would be captured again and put to death. I was besieged by an army of worries.”
What’s wrong with it?
- It’s verbose because passive voice requires a helper verb (“be,” “was,” etc.)
- It’s discursive, which suggests detachment during a time of heightened emotion.
- It delays indicating who is so worrying (i.e. the narrator’s enemies), which can jar a reader and force them to revise their mental image.
Here is the same example with passive voice removed:
“I feared my enemies would discover my efforts, or they would decide to do away with me, or capture me again and put me to death. An army of worries besieged me.”
How is it improved?
- 3 words shorter (8.6%). That doesn’t seem like much, but wouldn’t you be disinclined to read a work of fiction if almost 1 in 10 words were bloat?
- Less discursive, the emotion is clearer.
- We know who is fearsome right away.
When Is Passive Voice a Good Idea?
We’ve said that passive voice is discursive and detached. These traits can be desirable if your story quotes a scientific article, war plan, textbook, or bureaucratic memo. But there are other reasons, especially in dialog, the Wild West of fiction writing, where we commonly ignore grammar and punctuation. Why? Even though passive and active voice have the same literal meaning (they only differ by grammatical construction), speakers use them to mean different things.
Passive Voice Pro #1: Avoid oversharing
Suppose you’re writing a story in which the leader of one group is about to make a concession to another party. Next she could say any of the following sentences:
Active-1: “My subordinate can arrange that.”
Active-2: “We can arrange that.”
Passive-1: “That can be arranged.”
Active-1 is the worst. It’s oversharing. The other party doesn’t need to know who specifically is going to get it done. They just expect to get what’s being promised. Active-2 is better because a corporate entity (“We”) takes responsibility for the promise. The major question is whether the dodginess of Passive-1 is preferred over the more candid Active-2. Why is the passive voice dodgy? Because it evokes the question Why aren’t you telling me who?
Passive Voice Pro #2: Signal the subject is unimportant
Suppose another character has wronged your protagonist. That other character just apologized. Your protagonist could say either of the following:
Active-3: “You made mistakes, but we can get past that.”
Passive-2: “Mistakes were made, but we can get past that.”
Unless your protagonist is exceptionally direct or fixated on accountability, Passive-2 will be the better choice. The subjectlessness of the passive voice indicates a will to avoid placing blame, especially when the appropriate subject (“You”) would be accusatory.
Passive Voice Pro #3: Subject is too unclear to specify concisely
Some subjects are too vague, mysterious, or mired in theological politics that we should avoid specifying them in dialog or narration. The passive voice is great for that.
Consider this slogan (displayed on a billboard I drive by every so often): “When faced with a situation we cannot change, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Suppose we tried to make the second clause active. We’d end up with something like: “God, the gods, Nature, the Universe, kismet, or whatever (depending upon your worldview) challenge(s) us to change ourselves.” Made active, it wouldn’t fit on the billboard! Even if it did fit, it would only be memorable because of its absurdity.
I imagine there are communities of English speakers, today or historically, that could avoid a verbose active construction because of their shared monotheistic worldview. Such communities agree God is the implied subject of this class of passives. But even then, concealing the subject can be what listeners expect because God is too holy to name, which is why in the original Greek of the New Testament passive voice commonly indicates God’s action.
What To Do When You Find Passive Voice in Your Writing?
Whether a passive construction should stand in your story can’t be determined by a simple algorithm. There are cases where we can understand why it works, and there are others where we let it stand just because the alternatives are worse. There are also cases where the relative advantages of passive and active are basically a wash, and we shouldn’t agonize over which to use. Consider, “I was besieged by an army of worries” vs “An army of worries besieged me” from my example above. The passive construction emphasizes the sentence’s most vibrant image (“army of worries”) by placing it at the end, but the active construction is more frank and unassuming. Both read well.
A good rule of thumb is that, like adjectives and adverbs, every passive construction should be tested. If the writer finds a passive construction wanting, they should shift to an active construction or simply cut the passive sentence or clause.
I end by demonstrating this process by example. Consider the following: “Fynn was elected leader by his rebel crew.” The active form “Fynn’s rebel crew elected him leader” is cleaner than the passive but readers must resolve “him” as Fynn. If another male character were in the prior sentence, “him” may be ambiguous. We could try a slightly different active, “The rebel crew elected Fynn leader,” which is cleaner still but dispenses with Fynn’s possession of the crew, potentially crucial information. And notice that the passive has an upside: it’s poetic; it fits an iambic meter (Fynn was elected leader by his rebel crew). So it depends. The passive might be best.