Grammar Nazi: Strong Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

Plug: I use Grammarly for online proofreading because the naughty grammarian in me loves the sound of her passive voice.  Yeah, yeah I know.. I’m Stephanie and I’m a “was” addict. Passive voices litter my writing, especially the first few drafts.  I love using forms of “to be”.  Love it.  It’s so easy to type; just flows off my fingers.  Pop in a “were” here, an “are doing” there, throw in an “is being” somewhere and there you go.  It’s that easy.  And oh so naughty.  But I’m working on overcoming my addiction and you can too!  I’ll give you some tips below…

So what is active vs. passive voice? 

In active voice, the subject is doing the action.  For example…

Active: David punched the burglar. <— That’s active voice.  David’s punching.

Passive: The burglar is being punched by David.  <—- And that’s passive.  The  focus changed from David to the burglar.

So why is it so bad?  Well, if that’s your main character and you’re telling the story from their viewpoint, you want all the attention on them not on everyone else.  Plus, active voice helps create action and propel the story forward.  Passive voice is like being stuck in quicksand that’s slowly pulling you down.

Most Popular Passive Voice… To be or not to be

Sure if your Shakespeare you can go wild with the passive voice, but for the rest of us mortal folk… not so much.  Now not all forms of “to be” are passive (as you’ll see below); it’s how you use it in a sentence.  Confused?  Okay, let’s see some examples then.

Active: I am running over my annoying neighbor.

Passive: My neighbor is being run over by me.

In the passive example the neighbor is not doing anything.  No direct action.  He’s just laying there being a passive blob.  Where in the active example, you are full of action.  You’re mowing down your neighbor for goodness sakes!  There’s no question about it.  However, may questions my arise with passive voice.    Sometimes it’s awkward, vague, and wordy.  Active sentences tighten your writing and help it flow better.

Don’t you want a little mystery?

Well, there’s a good way to do passive voice mystery and a bad way.  Check out the examples below…

Passive: Three women ran around the park with chainsaws.   Clara sliced down a tree.  Old men were chased. 

Question is who chased the old men?  All three?  Clara?  The other two?  There’s too many unanswered questions.  Too much mystery.

Passive: Shots were fired.  Love was lost.  Promises were broken.

Who fired the shots?  Where did they come from?  Why?  How come there’s lost love?  Who?  Did they lose love because promises were broken?  Gah, my head hurts!

So when is it okay to use passive voice?

If you want to create good passive voice mystery.  Say what, right?  How does passive voice create the right amount of mystery?  Well, aside from the overwhelming examples above, check out these two below…

Passive: The Mercedes was stolen.

Active: Someone stole the Mercedes.

First off, which one is more mysterious?  Probably the passive.  You don’t know who stole the Mercedes or if a person stole it at all.  Maybe a bear took it for a joy ride.  It all depends on where you want the attention.  In the passive voice it’s on the Mercedes and in the active it’s on the person who stole it.  Not knowing someone stole it helps create mystery.  However, it’s not too much mystery because it’s just dealing with the Mercedes.

Non-fiction writers though…it’s probably best to avoid it if you can.  You want your writing clear and concise not full of unknowns.  Unless you’re a scientist… conveying objectivity requires lots of passive voice.  You have to remove yourself, actions, and opinions.  Maybe if you’re a lawyer too because in my day job, I see passive voice all the time.  All the freaking time, ugh.  Perhaps that’s where I picked up this bad habit… hmmm…

Still confused?

When in doubt… read it out loud.  If it sounds funny and stiff (i.e. not like a normal person talking) then it probably needs revising.  I’m not even going to tell you how many times I revised this to rid it of the unintentional passive voice… and I know there’s probably still more mistakes lingering about.  But, hey, nothing and no one is perfect.  And if you’re still confused check out these sites: here and here.  Or better yet… stick your prose into Grammerly and let them do the work for you!

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11 thoughts on “Grammar Nazi: Strong Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

  1. Ahh, a grammar Nazi with actual help for us passive folk. thank you very much for this. Most of the time, people seem to just criticize. Here, you offered up excellent help with this. Kudos!!! and it appears you have your computer up and running now (I hope)? pardon me, I work for the state and we run off a passive voice, LOL.

    1. Yes! Computer and internet are up and running. Thank goodness! January was a long month. I actually thought I was good to go about a week ago, then we ran into another problem. It took forever for a technician to come out too ugh. But all good now! *knock on wood*

      And thank you very much for your support and kind words!! I’m glad my post helped you 🙂 You are so right and it drives me crazy when all people do is criticize. That’s the last thing I would want to do… grammar is too confusing as it is. Besides, no one is perfect and my writing is covered in mistakes, so I can use all the help too. Never understood why people get so angry about grammar either… guess that’s what happens when you have the cover of the internet. LOL no worries… My husband works for the state too and I work for lawyers, so I’m totally used to it.

  2. I love passive voice as a reader; consequently, I will not be deterred from writing passive voice shamelessly and massively.

    I prefer fanciful and stiff sentences, and would never see it as a reason for avoiding passive voice. Decent fiction is supposed to be completely different from vulgar conversation.

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