Saturday, May 19, 2012

Passive Voice Was Used to Write This Post

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my own writing, something that I struggle with in every manuscript, has been writing in the passive voice. Passive voice is often seen as lazy and amateur writing. So I decided to focus this particular post on passive voice; what it is, how it works, how to avoid it, and when it is appropriate.

To begin with, let’s talk about what passive voice is. According to the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina: “A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence.” If you remember your basic sentence structure lessons from elementary school, you know a sentence is typically composed of a SUBJECT (actor/doer), a VERB (or predicate) and often times an OBJECT. Allow me to illustrate using ninjas, pirates, and zombies.

Izumi’s blade sliced clean through Mitsuko.

In this sentence, Izumi’s blade is the SUBJECT, sliced is the VERB or action, and Mitsuko is the OBJECT. If this sentence was to be written using passive voice, we would take the OBJECT, Mitsuko, and place him in the position of the SUBJECT at the beginning of the sentence, like so:

Mitsuko was sliced clean through by Izumi’s blade.

This sentence says the exact same thing and yet is less direct, less interesting, and longer. Here’s another example:
Passive: The Cutter was knocked off course by the blusterous storm.
Active: The blusterous storm knocked the Cutter off course. 

You may think that the ship would be the subject of this sentence, and in its current position in the passive sentence it is. But who/what is the actor/doer? The storm. The storm is performing the action—knocking— against the ship, therefore it is the subject of the sentence and the ship is the object. 

One reason to use Active rather than Passive Voice in your writing is to add strength and credulity to your words. Passive Voice is seen as soft, or weak. It is less direct and thereby less interesting. Consider:

The zombie was blasted in the face by Jackson’s shotgun.
Jackson blasted the zombie in the face with his shotgun.

Isn’t the active sentence much more direct and action oriented? In the first sentence, the zombie was acted on by Jackson. In the second, Jackson acted upon the zombie. Yes, it means the same thing, but it makes Jackson rather than the zombie the doer/actor and adds immediacy to the action that the first sentence lacks.
The active voice is also the natural voice. We as human beings tend to think, see, and speak in active voice. When we watch something happen, we see the subject acting on the object. Rarely do we view it from the object’s point of view. 

Another reason to avoid using Passive Voice is that it tends to create ambiguity and thereby confusion. 

The mindless brute was knocked suddenly from Susan before it could sink its teeth into her flesh.

See the problem here? Who/what knocked the zombie from the woman? If you were to change this into active voice, you would be forced to add a subject (actor/doer) or end up with an incomplete sentence.

Jackson knocked the mindless brute from Susan before it could sink its teeth into her flesh.

No more confusion. We knew who did what. Passive voice is often used this way purposely by politicians to avoid admitting to mistakes or accepting blame.

According to government sources, the virus had been created in a laboratory.

Created by whom? The government? Terrorists? High School kids? The sentence leaves the subject undefined. This is a good example of when passive voice would be used on purpose to create ambiguity and shuck blame. 

In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and EB White state that, “The habitual use of the active voice… makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.”

So how do you spot passive voice in your writing? For the most part, it’s a simple matter of looking for a form of “to be” such as is, was, were, are, am, have been, has been, will be, will have been, etc. followed by a past participle, (a verb typically ending in –ed). The palace has been breached by members of the Black Claw. In this example we have a form of “to be” in “has been” and the past participle “breached”. The active version of this sentence would read: Members of the Black Claw breached the palace.

Now, this doesn’t mean that every sentence with a form of “have” or “be” in it is passive. The crew has to bury the treasure. Since the form of “to be”, which is “has” in this sentence, is not attached to a past-tense verb, it is not a passive sentence.

The best way to tell is to ask questions. Is there action in this sentence? Patient Zero’s cells were invaded and quickly overrun by the virus. Yes, the action is the invasion of the cells. So what’s at the front of the sentence, the subject or the object? Who is doing the invading? The virus. Whose cells are being invaded? Patient Zero’s. So Patient Zero is the object and the virus is the subject. The sentence should read: The virus invaded and quickly overran Patient Zero’s cells.

Another way to spot passive voice is to look for the word “by”. It won’t always be there in a passive sentence, but it is a good indicator that you should take a second look at a sentence. Anytime you say something was done by someone, that someone is obviously the actor/doer, or subject and should be at the beginning of the sentence. 
Passive: The ship was taken over by the crew.
Active: The crew took over the ship.

Passive: The Emperor was assassinated by the legendary, Black Panther.
Active: The legendary Black Panther assassinated the Emperor.

So, is passive voice always wrong? No. There are a few instances where using the passive voice is acceptable, even preferable. Scientific writing is one example. By removing the scientist from the report, the reader can focus on what is being taught. Then the human genome was sequenced… Doesn’t matter who did the sequencing, just that it was done. But, even in these circumstances, active voice can help avoid any ambiguity. We then sequenced the human genome…

That being said, we’re here to talk about passive voice in fictional writing. However, before we discuss these options, note that these are rare cases. Even in the examples I give, most of them could potentially be made stronger by restructuring them in active voice. 

To emphasize the object.
Isaac was killed by the zombies last night.
The important part of this sentence is that Isaac, presumably a known character, was killed. By placing him in the SUBJECT slot of the sentence, we show him as being more important than the mass of faceless zombies that ate his brains. However, as I mentioned, this may be effective, but is still seen as a weaker sentence and would probably be made more forceful in active structure; The zombies ate Isaac’s brains last night. 

To de-emphasize the subject.
The captain’s head had been stuck upon a pike and left on deck.
If you don’t know who the actor/subject is, OR if you want to keep this information from the reader, you emphasize the object, in this case the captain’s head, and de-emphasize the unknown subject. Just remember that if it’s important that the reader know who the subject is, use an active form of the sentence to inform them. Old Seadog, the cook, stuck the captain’s head on a pike and left it on the deck.

If it’s irrelevant who the subject is.
The white flag was raised just after dawn on the fourth day.
We don’t know who the subject here is and we don’t need to know. Be it some peasant or the Emperor himself, the important aspect of this sentence is that the fortress surrendered. Once again, though, if it’s important that your readers know who did it, then use an active structure to tell them. The Emperor himself raised the white flag just after dawn…

Always keep in mind that these exceptions are rare. Many people can, and do argue that passive voice should never be used, ever. In reality, the use of passive voice is subjective. It’s your writing. If you think the sentence is better or more effective in passive voice, then use it. BUT, if it’s possible to restructure your sentence in active voice, 99% of the time you probably should. 

So, now it’s time to check your knowledge. I found a few online quizzes based on the passive voice. The first one is a simple yes/no style quiz in which you select whether the provided sentence is active or passive. I scored 18 out of 20 on this one, so I guess I’m learning. The second quiz is a little more difficult as it forces you to reconstruct the sentence yourself. NOTE: Not all of the sentences in his quiz are passive or need revision, so pay attention. I scored 9 out of 10 on this one.

Rather than providing a writing prompt for this post, I want to challenge you to take these quizzes and post your scores in the comments.