Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Picking on Passive Voice

Why do people hate on passive voice?

Passive voice is used by many writers unintentionally because identification of passive sentences can be tough for writers. The actor is hidden and made the object of the sentence by these writers. The traditional pattern of subject—verb—object is shunned by passive-voice writers, and objects are used by them as subjects. Instead of writing about a subject that does something, an object that has something done to it is written about by writers who use passive voice. 

Wow—do you have any idea what I just said there, because I don’t. Readers struggle to comprehend passive sentences. They often are long; they often are wordy; they often are confusing.  That’s why people hate on passive voice!

So here’s what I said above: Many writers use passive voice unintentionally because they don’t actually know what passive voice is and can’t recognize it when they use it. When writers use passive voice, they hide the actor of the sentence. Rather than writing so that the actor does something to the object (subject—verb—object), they write sentences so that the object is having something done to it by the actor (object—verb—actor).

Thus, an active sentence reads:
The writer wrote the sentence.
And a passive sentence reads:
The sentence was written by the writer.

Importantly, past tense doesn’t equal passive voice. “Wrote” is past tense, but that sentence is not a passive sentence.


The best way to identify passive voice is to look for a form of the verb “to be”—is, are am, was, were, has/had/have been, will be, will have been—then a past participle (a verb that usually ends in –ed). So you’ve got a passive sentence here:

The Smith case has been handled by John for years.   

Just remember—not all forms of the verb “to be” are passive—you’ve got to have both “to be” and a past participle.

Another common tip to identify passive sentences is this: If the sentence reads properly when you insert “by zombies” after the verb, you’ve got a passive sentence:

The sentence was written by zombies.

Finally, Word has a feature to help you identify passive voice. Under the File menu, selection Options, then Proofing. Check the box labeled “Show readability statistics.” When you spell-check a document, this box will pop up at the end with some cool statistics, including the percentage of passive sentences.

If you highlight a single sentence for proofing and select “No” when asked if Word should check the remainder of the document, the readability statistics report will tell you if that sentence is passive.    
Passive sentences aren’t inherently wrong—as I’ve said before, you ca use passive sentences strategically when the actor is unknown or, if the actor is known, to minimize the actor’s role. But if you aren’t using passive voice strategically, try to identify it and minimize it using these tips!

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