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When You SHOULD Use Passive Voice

So we’ve talked about the passive voice and why we don’t use it. And now, we’re talking about when it’s okay to use.

The first time we chatted about the passive voice, I cited the great Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence:

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.

Good ol’ TJ embraced the passive voice. Let’s talk about why.

Statue of Liberty Declaration

Photo by SJ Pinkney

When you use the active voice, you are indicating that the agent (the one who initiates the action) is the most important part of the sentence. The puppy rolled on the grass. Angie rolled with the puppy.

If the object of the action is the most important part of the sentence, that’s when the passive voice becomes your ally. Passive voice can be used to indicate that your readers should be paying attention to the object of the sentence instead of the agent. The ant colony that Angie and the puppy were rolling on was frantically trying to escape the earthquake.

Thomas Jefferson used it to indicate that the object “all men” was the important part of his Declaration. You can use it to indicate that the anthill that Angie and the puppy are rolling on is the important part of the story.

Keep your use in moderation though. It can get exhausting reading sentence after sentence of passive voice.

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PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to write from the perspective of an ant/a bird/a fly/a DVD of Clueless that is in the background of another story. Use the passive voice where appropriate to indicate which story the reader should be focusing on. Post your practice in the comments, and make sure you leave some helpful tips for your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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  • erickwrites

    Whenever I encounter people who claim a writer is never to use the passive voice, which is usually because they learned that in the 5th grade and never learned better, I point them to the opening paragraph of “A Tale of Two Cities.”

    Then, I say, “Try to rewrite that without the passive voice while maintaining literary quality.”

    That never fails to prove my point.

    Erick

    • Brian

      Hi Erick,

      No snark here either, but the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities is not in the passive voice. It’s all linking verbs — “was” — and the terms active and passive don’t apply to linking verbs.

      Now, that first paragraph IS a good example of an artfully created run-on sentence (punctuation “rules” were more flexible in his day).

      I’d recommend using Liz’s Dec. of Ind. to prove your point from now on. :)

      • erickwrites

        Thanks, Brian. I had assumed helping verbs always showed the passive voice. I will check that book out that you recommended.

        Erick

  • Yvette Carol

    Aden wriggled around, using a little bumping motion to sit upright again. “Did you see anything of where we were taken?” he asked. “Geo, bub, I’m real glad you’re here with me…now where are we, what did you see?”
    “We’re underground, deep deep down. The Whisper Room has a cave that goes underneath the floor but there was no one in it.”
    “This is the Whisper Room?”
    “Hardly. That was the first cave we went through. No. What lay below that level was a labyrinth system of caves. We passed the Goldstones tied up in one of them on the way down.”
    Aden’s relief was overwhelming. “They’re alive? You saw them?”
    “Yes, as spider-tied and bound as you are. Then the moth brought us down at least another level or two to here.”
    A big sigh, muffled by the cloth in his mouth sounded like the wind when it’s high up in the very tops of the trees. Aden opened his eyes again. Frustrated by blackness, it challenged the very stability of his mind, the fact that he could not see. He twisted and turned but there appeared to be no lessening of the darkness anywhere.
    He closed his eyes again, fighting down the nausea rising. “Bub, what are we going to do?”

    This piece, from my WIP, carries on more or less from where the last piece I posted left off. :-) I took a quick look and saw a lot of ‘passive voice’. I feel foolish, however, I was unaware this was what it was called until this year, reading this blog!! Yes I admit my own ignorance…. I fear I use passive voice a lot, looking at this one piece. I think now what I need to do is go through book one and this, book two, to take a lot of it out and make sequences more active. Then, hopefully it’ll be a little more balanced….

  • Chris Wilson

    Obituaries are often written in the passive voice, it keeps attention on the person who died and what happened during their life. To use the active during that would be exhausting to read and takes longer due to the constant changing of subjects in the sentence.
    Imagine this article rewritten solely in the active: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-17959743

    • Marianne Vest

      I must be confused. This looks like it is written in past tense but active voice to me.

      • Chris Wilson

        Sorry, rephrasing the whole thing would be better probably ;) Obituaries often CONTAIN the passive voice as it is easy to keep a constant subject (the person who died) than switching between subject and object of the sentence as well as being agent and patient of the action.
        I choose that article as it was the first obituary on the search results and so rather than search for an exact example to back up my claim I choose the first one [as my claim should stand or fall on that]
        Some quotes from the article: “They were dismissed as a fad…” “In 1988 they were sued by a freelance rock critic.” “Adam Yauch was born in Brooklyn in 1965.” “Their 2004 album To the Five Boroughs was praised for its good intentions and earnest social and political commentary…” plenty of passive voice there.

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  • Brian

    Hi Liz,

    I visit here regularly and often share articles I find, I want this comment to feel helpful rather than critical (I hate snarky grammar comments).

    I assume you meant this sentence to illustrate passive voice: “The ant colony that Angie and the puppy were rolling on was fran­ti­cally try­ing to escape the earthquake.”

    But it’s not. The subject is “colony” (or “ant colony” if you consider it a compound noun), and the predicate is “was trying.” So, the subject is the agent, not the object. Even the adjective clause “that Angie and the puppy were rolling on” is active voice, as the subjects “Angie” and “puppy” perform the action “were rolling.”

    In fact, it’s not possible to offer a passive version of your original sentences because the verb “rolled” is intransitive — it doesn’t have an object, which means there’s no object to make into the agent. (“Grass” and “puppy” are objects of the prepositions “on” and “with,” not objects of the verb.) I guess you could say something like “The hill that had been rolled upon by Angie…” :) But that’s not really what you’re looking for.

    Anyway, I hope you know I’m not picking, just offering the kind of input I would want on my blog. Oh, and I love the Declaration of Independence example!

  • http://www.jonathonvs.com Jonathon

    Another great use of the passive voice is if introducing a subject would be clunky or awkward. For example:

    Passive: “Some of Europe’s best literature was written in the early 19th century.”

    Using the active voice instead would introduce duplication:

    Active: “Authors wrote Europe’s best literature in the early 19th century.”

    Well, of course authors wrote it; who else would have? It’s not exactly a revelation that authors write, so this sentence works better in the passive. Similarly, it’s good to use passive if you’d otherwise have to repeatedly use generic, boring subjects like “someone” or “people”:

    P: “Mrs Jackson’s safety was threatened while she was on her way to work.”
    A: “Something threatened Mrs Jackson’s safety while she was on her way to work.”
    P: “The new fountain will be unveiled on Tuesday.”
    A: “Somebody will unveil the new fountain on Tuesday.”
    P: “He only drank orange juice that had been squeezed that day.”
    A: “He only drank orange juice that someone had squeezed that day.”

    In all these sentences, the passive sounds much better. If you can find an interesting subject to use, though, by all means, use the active voice.

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