Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

Verbs have two voices: the ‘active’ and the ‘passive’. A sentence in which the subject performs the action of the verb creates an active voice and packs an immediate punch. A sentence using the passive voice is often dull and convoluted because some form of the helping verb ‘to be’ (am, is, are, was, were, being, been) attaches itself to an otherwise strong verb that does not need help. For this reason, according to grammar guru Simon Heffer, the passive voice is “much beloved of politicians”.

The active voice is straightforward. Consider this sentence:

Auguste Rodin sculpted The Kiss in 1889.

subject/actor (Rodin), then the verb/action (sculpted), then the object (The Kiss)

The passive voice reverses the order, adding (unnecessary?) length to the sentence with two extra words.

The Kiss was sculpted by Auguste Rodin in 1889.

the object (The Kiss) comes before the verb and in doing so establishes a certain distance between the actor and the action. Note that the passive voice introduces the word ‘was’, which is the past tense of the verb ‘to be’.

As I wrote in the February post, Verbs: Lights, Camera, Action!, and as the Wiley Style Manual (p. 55) suggests, an active sentence construction encourages the use of stronger verbs that invigorate the action (such as sculpted) whereas the passive structure involving a part of the verb to be and a past participle—was sculpted— is less direct.

News articles and official reports often deliver ambiguity in passive sentence construction, which can antagonise readers. Heffer considers the passive voice “part of the language of evasion”.

Compare the following two sentences and note how the first sentence is less direct. m

Further investigation will be required to determine the reason for painting’s deterioration. (passive)

The conservation team will investigate the reason for the painting’s deterioration. (active)

Shrunk and White’s Elements of Style (Fourth Edition, 2000) provides this passive/active voice comparison:

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground. (passive)

Dead leaves covered the ground. (active)

Other examples:

Carrie read the novel in one day. (active)
The novel was read by Carrie in one day. (passive)

The art critic wrote a scathing review of Booth’s new painting. (active)
A scathing review of Booth’s new painting was written by the art critic. (passive)

Carracci painted the scenes chronologically. (active)
The scenes were painted chronologically by Carracci. (passive)

As you can see: by limiting the passive voice in your writing, you’ll cut down on the flab!

However, the passive voice can be effective when used sparingly and correctly. For example, in fiction writing, if a scene requires tension and mystery, then the passive voice can be useful.

Raph pushed open the door. The table was overturned, the mirror was smeared with blood, and a bottle of red wine had been smashed against the peach-coloured wall. He was haunted by the silent chaos. 

The first sentence is written in the active voice and the next two are in the passive voice (was overturned, was smeared, had been smashed, was haunted). There is tension and colour in this writing as the author ‘paints’ a vivid picture but withholds knowledge of who caused the carnage. The passive verb construction highlights the objects that received the action. The last sentence generates a brooding and reflective mood; if written in the active voice (The silent chaos haunted him) this mood would have been less effective, and maybe more ghostly!

As a concluding teaser, what’s your opinion of this sentence from A Room with a View, written by E. M. Forster in 1908? Are you tempted to change any part of it?

Leaning on her elbows on the parapet, she contemplated the river Arno, whose roar was suggesting some unexpected melody to her ears.

Converting every passive sentence into an active one isn’t a crusade recommended by writing experts —they just want writers to be aware that that an active voice is dynamic because it’s direct, invigorating the action and revealing the actor; a passive voice is more convoluted, calling attention to the receiver of the action, whether animate or inanimate.

 

 

 

 

The featured image is a photo of a section of Francois Rude’s sculpture ‘The Departure of the Volunteers of 1792’ (or ‘La Marseillaise’) on the right face of the arch of The Arc de Triomphe in Paris. This detail shows the Roman goddess of war stone relief.

‘Style Manual for authors, editors and printers’, 6th edition, 2002 (reprinted 2010), revised by Snooks & Co., John Wiley & Sons Australia Ltd.

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