Passive Voice

Kylara

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Can anyone tell me why some people (probably most of you!) dislike the passive voice?

I rather like using it, scattering it about my prose where I think it adds a little extra. But no-one else seems to like it. Just because it takes a little longer to read and slows you down doesn't mean I should bin it. Or does it? Must everything be active active active and happening now without any pausing over nicely passive sentence construction.

'was halted' gives a bit more than just 'halted' (in my opinion anyway). I know I can get rid of 'was', but am I the only one who sees the "extra" by including 'was'? Am I alone in the use of passive? Alone in my last grammatical stand for using the passive voice, because why have it if you can't use it?

What is it you hate about it so much? And why? :( ;)
 

Hex

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You're not alone. I agree, there is a place for passive voice. Sometimes, it is overused.
 

J Riff

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I am impassive about passive voice. It can work fine, and you are right about adding little differences with one word.
 

The Judge

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You're right that the "was halted"** doesn't mean exactly the same thing as "halted". The "was" means that she is brought to a halt by something impeding her progress eg "She was halted by a large man with a writ" whereas "She halted. A large man with a writ stood in her way." doesn't have quite the same implication of force and power. On the other hand it's a lot more direct and abrupt which is also valuable.

The passive voice has its place in writing, and I used it a lot in my legal work as it gives a distancing effect that is handy when you're trying to deal with complex legal issues and avoid emotion. But by and large that's not what you want in a story, and too much can produce a deadening effect.

It can also give the characters a passive feel, as if they're not in control of the situation. Sometimes that is desirable: "He was swept away by the flood water" puts the emphasis on him and his helplessness; the active voice of "The flood water swept him away" to my mind makes the water more important and diminishes him a little. Both work, though, and which one you use depends on the feel of the whole piece and where the line occurs eg as a final line to a story, the latter wins for me, but half-way through a paragraph and he's going to be fighting back, I'd probably choose the former.


** I'm not sure why but I'd actually avoid "halted" and use "stopped". Perhaps because it's more emphatic. Or "came to a halt" if you want to be more flowery and slower!
 

Toby Frost

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Generally speaking, the passive voice sounds weaker, less punchy. "A meeting will be held" has a distanced and slightly pompous, "official" quality compared to "We will hold a meeting". Also, "We will hold a meeting" tells you more - it has the added ingredient of "we" holding the meeting.

Most of the time, the active voice is more direct and engaging, and there's not really a specific need to use passive where active will do. But it's not a terrible crime.
 

HareBrain

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"He was swept away by the flood water" puts the emphasis on him and his helplessness; the active voice of "The flood water swept him away" to my mind makes the water more important and diminishes him a little

If English had been developed with the novelist in mind, there would be a verb meaning "to be swept away", thus avoiding endless anguish.
 

Jo Zebedee

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@Mouse pulls me up for it from time to time, so I'm not anti the passive voice. But, to keep interest up, I think there needs to be a balance. Because reading a book where the mc isn't active would get pretty boring, I think and the active voice carries that action to an extent.
 

Kylara

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I agree that passive all the time wouldn't be great. But I do like the little extra it can give. In the 'was halted' above the haltee is a bolting horse and the halter stops the horse mid air - first indication that the character has magic of his own. The horse hangs in the air for a moment before the character moves over and grabs the horse. I felt the 'was halted' gave, as TJ said, an
implication of force and power
as opposed to just offhandedly halted a half tonne stallion.

I like the was swept as opposed to the swept him. There is just something extra there. I think that a bit of passive every so often is good and can add a little more than the active equivalent. But some people (*person marking my writing*) absolutely has a thing against it. Every passive part - once in 1500 words (the above 'was halted') was circled and PASSIVE scrawled next to it as if I had no idea it was passive. I chose passive over active for the extra oomph it gave the sentence. Both people I know who are super against it are American, so wondering if it might also be a British/American divide issue?

I would use a lot more of it (still pretty sparing ;) ) if I knew I could get away with it, but it seems unlikely. So I only use it where I feel it really does work; in the same way I use semicolons where I think they should be (where they SHOULD be).

But that is a while other topic!

I can understand the hate of too many 'was'es but I seem to agree with you lot saying a bit of it here and there is ok, but I can't get my head around the utter hate it gets from some people :(
 

The Judge

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Some people just have tick-box mentalities. They've heard someone say active voice is better than passive, and instead of reading it with the qualifying "most of the time" they see it as "passive = bad" each and every time. There's no arguing with them as they don't understand writing, only rules.
 

Brian G Turner

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Just because it takes a little longer to read and slows you down

Conversely, though, where's the benefit in telling a story that takes longer than it needs to, and slows the story down? :)

'was halted' gives a bit more than just 'halted'

Immediacy is important to the style I'm trying to achieve, so I attempt to to obliterate "was" at every opportunity. However, it's impossible to get rid of entirely. Even still, it's a demand for a particular style. JK Rowling certainly uses it a lot.

These days media needs to deliver much quickly and succinctly than it used to be able to get away with. I don't see novels as exempt from the practice, and I do see the reading public as increasingly less patient.

(Btw - kylara, you don't use the word "was" in your original post, except for illustration purposes. Are you sure you're not festooning your prose with redundant words, just because it sounds more writerly? :) )
 

Kylara

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The illustration was taken from a bit of WiP I am working on at the moment - the full sentence is 'Before he had taken three strides the great black horse was halted mid-air – mid stride.'
I only used the 'was halted' bit because in context it may not be considered completely passive (meaning would changed without the was), whilst the 'was halted' definitely is passive.

I do tend to use a fair few 'was'es, but mostly they are ok and necessary - I strip out all that are redundant. I am currently on an 'as' hunt in bits of WiP that were outlined and worked on and then the 'as'es unhelpfully didn't remove themselves!

I am rather against the current immediate, fast, consumerist reader trend. I think it does people good to be challenged by long punctuated sentences; as opposed to the super short ones.

I think that there is a certain benefit to making it longer and slightly slower in places in order to tell it better. Not longer than it needs to, but the right length - it doesn't have to contain purely short sentences that get the sentence and the story over and done with as quickly as possible. There is plenty of space to slow down in a novel ;)
 

Ray McCarthy

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I am rather against the current immediate, fast, consumerist reader trend. I think it does people good to be challenged by long punctuated sentences; as opposed to the super short ones.
I don't expect people that aren't readers to read any of my books.
People that only read headlines and watch YouTube are unlikely to be interested by the content or reading 110K words. I don't think we should be following TV and Hollywood in dumbing down content.
 

mgilmour

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I find that I use passive voice quite a lot in writing business proposals etc. When I did the first draft of Battleframe I found that I had passive voice all through it. I then had to strip a lot of it out but I still left some in as it just seemed to make sense. The result was a much punchier book that seemed to have a sense of momentum.
 

Fishbowl Helmet

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What is it you hate about it so much? And why?

Like any other spice people overuse it. Or they use it badly. Or accidentally instead of knowingly and with intent. Anything can work if you know why and how it works and use it with intent and purpose. Most passive constructions are accidental or pointless.

Conversely, though, where's the benefit in telling a story that takes longer than it needs to, and slows the story down?

Pacing?
 

Kerrybuchanan

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I began writing with heavy and accidental use of Passive Voice which really didn't work. Thanks to folks like Springs, etc, I have begun to at least recognise when I'm using it (most of the time, anyway), but the risk is that I'm going to over-correct and end up with something that is all fast pace and active, without the light and shade I need. I have to keep reminding myself that there is a place for both passive and active voices, but I don't think I'm experienced enough yet to always recognise the right time for each.
 

Dan Jones

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the full sentence is 'Before he had taken three strides the great black horse was halted mid-air – mid stride.'

Not to be overly pedantic but I think in this instance the 'was' detracts from the sentence, precisely because it implies the horse isn't doing the halting. Which it clearly is.

But in general I'm in agreement with most posters - sometimes you want your characters to be out of control. But, to expand upon Brian's point, if someone is being subjected to an action ('he was halted') then presumably somebody or something is doing the action. Therefore they become the active voice. Granted, you don't always want this in certain POV sections of narrative. But, to go back to the flood example, I'd use "the flood swept him away". If you overuse it there could be problems - you certainly want your characters to be active and to propel the action, rather than just be a canvas for the rest of the story to paint itself upon.
 

Kylara

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Not to be overly pedantic but I think in this instance the 'was' detracts from the sentence, precisely because it implies the horse isn't doing the halting. Which it clearly is.

But that is the point - the horse isn't halting itself - he is being halted, by magic, from afar. Hence why I didn't use the full sentence as passive example - just the passive construction of 'was halted'. 'The horse was halted' indicates someone else is doing the halting, they have power to stop a half tonne animal. 'The horse halted' indicates that the horse halted himself, because he fancied it, sod what the man wanted'. This is (rather off topic) what I teach as "active riding" to my clients. The rider must make the choice to move or stand, and the horse must obey that request. If a rider asked the horse to stop ('was halted') and the horse ignores it then the horse is active and the rider passive. If a rider asks the horse to stop ('was halted') and it does then the rider is active, the horse passive. Much like the horse moving off when it wants as opposed to moving off when asked - active riding. But like I said very off topic and the nuances probably only understood by the few crazy horse people on here :p

I love the 'he was swept away by the flood' purely because the was indicates the lack of control, the power of the water and the fact that being swept away was not what the poor bloke wanted to be doing. 'the flood swept him away' gives a sense of passivity to the character - there is no struggle against being swept, the water lacks power and he might have planned to be swept away and so is perfectly happy to be doing so. There is a sense of desperation achieved by the passive in this case that is lost in the active.

The simple addition of passivity in a sentence can affect so much more than just the sentence type. (oh and if I wanted to phrase it as horse halting I would put it as - the man halted the/his horse so that it is still active, but there is no doubt that the horse did what the man wanted. In fact I use the horse halted/halted horse switch a few times, even if only horse people understand the difference :p )
 

MWagner

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Like any other spice people overuse it. Or they use it badly. Or accidentally instead of knowingly and with intent. Anything can work if you know why and how it works and use it with intent and purpose. Most passive constructions are accidental or pointless.

This. I'm a technical writer, and passive voice is almost never the most effective way to write clear instructional content. My co-workers and I ruthlessly identify and remove it from one another's work in peer edits.

In fiction, passive can sometimes be a better construction than active voice. But the writer has to deliberately make that choice. And you're not going to do that unless you first train yourself to write in the active voice by default.
 

mgilmour

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This. I'm a technical writer, and passive voice is almost never the most effective way to write clear instructional content. My co-workers and I ruthlessly identify and remove it from one another's work in peer edits.

In fiction, passive can sometimes be a better construction than active voice. But the writer has to deliberately make that choice. And you're not going to do that unless you first train yourself to write in the active voice by default.

I'm jealous that you have a peer group that stomps out passive voice! Sitting in my living room with my laptop on my knees I turn up Word's grammar checker to max and it then identifies most of the passive voice problems. The difficulty is that it doesn't actually make any suggestions on how to fix it and I've found myself spending thirty minutes or more reconstructing an entire paragraph to remove a little part that was in passive voice.

So here's my question.....when does editing stop? I found that with my book I could have edited forever, fixing and tweaking a word here and there. At some stage you just have to put it down and push the publish button. Has anyone had a similar experience to me?
 

TheDustyZebra

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But that is the point - the horse isn't halting itself - he is being halted, by magic, from afar. Hence why I didn't use the full sentence as passive example - just the passive construction of 'was halted'. 'The horse was halted' indicates someone else is doing the halting, they have power to stop a half tonne animal. 'The horse halted' indicates that the horse halted himself, because he fancied it, sod what the man wanted'.

You're absolutely right -- clearly the horse can't halt himself mid-air, mid-stride. If someone else is doing it to him, he was halted. Or frozen.
 

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