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Friday, July 25, 2014

Feeling passive?

By Michael Ehret
Go to any writing conference or eavesdrop on any writer’s critique group (both great things for the practicing writer, by the way) and if you hang around long enough, the subject of passive writing will be discussed—and usually with the same conclusion: 

It’s bad. To-be-avoided-at-almost-any-cost bad. 

Well, you won’t get any argument from me that writing in passive voice is best avoided. But how do you avoid it if you’re not sure what it is? 

Active voice

In an active sentence, the subject performs the action.
  • Example 1: Linda dances the samba.
  • Example 2: Bill Withers sings Lean On Me.
In the first example, Linda is the subject and she is dancing the samba, the object of the sentence. In the second, soul singer Bill Withers is the subject and he is singing the song Lean On Me, the object.

Passive voice

Passive voice gets it backward, making the object of the sentence into the subject.
  • Example 1: The samba is danced by Linda.
  • Example 2: Lean On Me is sung by Bill Withers.
Here, the subject has become “the samba” (or the song Lean On Me) and the focus of the sentence has shifted from Linda to the dance (or from Bill Withers to the song).


Prefer the active

Most times, active voice is better. Why? Several reasons:
  1. Active voice sentences use fewer words. “Linda dances the samba” is four words. “The samba is danced by Linda” is six.
  2. Who wants to use weak words? Words like is/am/are/was/were/being/been, etc., are dull. Strong writing includes concrete nouns, powerful verbs, and vivid adjectives.
  3. No one likes confusion. Passive voice is often confusing or unclear.

 Is passive always bad?

You know how it is. Nothing in the English language is always—not even the long-revered serial comma. (Don’t get me started.) But it is good to remember that passive sentences aren’t incorrect. What is true, however, is that passive sentence construction is often not the best way to express your thoughts since it is vague, awkward, and wordy. For examples where passive voice is preferred, visit this page on Grammar Girl’s site.



Michael Ehret loves to play with words as a Marketing Communications Writer for CHEFS Catalog and as a freelance editor at WritingOnTheFineLine.com. Ehret is the former editor of the ACFW Journal and has edited several nonfiction books, proofedited for Abingdon Press, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

4 comments:

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Michael, I'd love to know your take on the serial comma!

Michael Ehret said...

Heather, I am totally biased in favor of the serial comma. I see no compelling reasons NOT to use it and several good ones TO use it.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Thanks, Michael. I do use it in my novels, but didn't go into writing books using it, probably because I'd written for newspapers. I think I've finally shaken the non-serial-comma habit BUT occasionally I still slip mid-series. :)

Michael Ehret said...

I started in newspapers as well. The paper I worked for made the change AWAY from the serial comma while I was there. It was the hardest thing to change. But what made it harder was that there seemed to be no good reason ... But as I say, I'm biased.