The Active and Passive Voice

vonHelldorf

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Hello everyone. I'm new to the forum!

Thought I'd introduce myself with a request for views on the active and passive voice. As a new writer I've found myself falling into the passive voice trap, so embarked upon a quest to educate myself on what exactly this is. I won't go into any detail unless anyone wants me too, but essentially I've found myself re-wording sentences to remove:

  • Been
  • Is
  • Am
  • Were
  • Are
  • Was
  • To be
  • Be
  • Being

My understanding is that these are passive verbs and should be avoided in sentences in which the subject is carrying out an action, e.g.

The orange was peeled by Tom (passive)
Tom peeled the orange (active)

One thing which has proven to be problematic for me is my dialect (I'm from Liverpool, UK), and generally us scousers use a lot of these passive verbs when we talk.

Has anyone else experienced issues like this?

Does anyone have any tips or guidance to share?

All the best,

Richie
 

Brian G Turner

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Welcome to the chrons forums, @vonHelldorf !

As for passive voice - I'm sure we've had this discussion previously (possibly a few times!) and my understanding from those is that it's possible to go overboard in trying to remove any potential trace.

For example, I don't believe the word "was" is inherently passive - it's certainly used regularly in modern best selling fiction such as by JK Rowling and Lee Child.
 

The Judge

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Welcome to the Chrons.

First of all don't worry too much about the passive voice. I doubt that you really do use it a lot, certainly not in speech, because it's not a natural way for people to speak, or usually write. It's something I have done a lot in writing, because I was a solicitor and we tend to use it to introduce a more formal style in court documents eg instead of "I think" we'd say "It is believed that". See, not something that trips off the tongue.

Although you're correct as to the two example sentences you give, as Brian says, the various tenses of the verb "to be"** are not themselves passive, they merely crop up when the passive voice is used and anyone who tells you to avoid "to be" at all costs is talking nonsense, I'm afraid. Here is a post I made last September on "to be" generally, including the passive voice, which might be of interest.

Also in that thread at #93 among others is a full discussion of the passive voice, which might help further. Basically, you avoid it by keeping in mind who is doing the action and is the subject of the verb -- I am walking the dog -- and form your sentence accordingly, instead of bringing the object to the fore -- The dog is being walked by me. The tell-tale is usually the "by" so check how often you use that in your writing -- if not much, then you're fine.

If you are still worried about it, then once you get to 30 posts you can put a piece of your work up in Critiques and we can check it for you to see if it is in fact heavily using the passive voice. In that case we can show you how to re-write it to be more active.



** all the words you list are indeed just forms of "to be" in the different tenses, not themselves different verbs.
 

Theophania Elliott

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It's one of those times when it's not so much a rule... more of a guideline.

A lot of the time, active is better - it's shorter, punchier, and sounds a lot less like a scientific paper. However, like @Brian G Turner said, you can go overboard with trying to remove it. Sometimes, the passive form turns out to be a more efficient way to get the point across.

And sometimes, passive voice gets your meaning across better:

Active voice: John fired Harry today.
Passive voice: Harry was fired by John today.
Passive voice (2): Harry was fired today.

So, you might want to use passive voice if it doesn't matter who fired Harry - all we care about is that he was fired. Equally, if we don't know who fired Harry, then we'd probably use passive voice - it sounds more natural (and efficient) to say, "Harry was fired today" than "Someone fired Harry today".

If Harry was fired today, then obviously someone did it, but if we don't know who, passive voice gets the point across just fine.

Plus, the first two sentences have slightly different emphasis: in the active one, John takes prime position. But if Harry is our protagonist, surely we want to keep Harry centre stage? So it might be better to use Harry was fired by John today.

Then, there are phrases like Jane was born in June - passive voice, but there isn't really a good way to turn it into active voice (other than 'Jane's mother gave birth to Jane in June').

And, as you've pointed out, some dialects use passive voice more - and if dialect is important, you'll want to keep it.

Bottom line: this is one of those 'rules' that is best understood as a prod to make you think about the subject. Each time you use passive voice, is that the right thing to do? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't - but if you're thinking about it, you're more likely to make the right decision than if you just take it for granted.

(And the same applies to adverbs - the English language has them for a reason, so you'll never get rid of them all because sometimes an adverb is the best word for the job. But often, a different verb will do the job better than the verb+adverb you originally thought of. Again, it's a matter of thinking about it rather than just mechanically obeying a rule.)
 

AnyaKimlin

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I'm also from Liverpool - although I don't have much of an accent (unless I'm swearing) it is very clear that Scouse is my natural dialect.

I don't remove all passive sentences because it is part of my natural voice but I will ask myself if the sentence would be more exciting without it. If it is then I make the sentence active but if it doesn't make much difference or the work flows better in passive voice or actually the passive voice enhances the scene I tend to leave it. No doubt when I get an editor I'll have to assess whether or not I still think that ;)
 

vonHelldorf

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Thanks for your tips everyone; very useful indeed! Apologies for bringing it up again—late to the party! I come from a legal background too which may explain why I tend to stray toward it, as well as the dialect. I definitely agree with using it in dialogue—it seems we naturally use the passive voice and it definitely gives dialogue more of an authentic vibe. I've come across a lot of authors, Sanderson at the moment, who do use 'was', 'were' and the like and it works fine. Like Theophania says, it's a good prod to make you think about the sentence and it's definitely helped with my prose.

Thanks again for taking the time to offer your sage advice. I've learned more from you chaps than I have in the hours spent researching on the web.
 

Steve Harrison

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Passive v Active voice is interesting and I used to obsess about it. But these days I perform a separate focussed edit for passive voice, in addition to general sweeps and passes on plot, each main character, dialogue etc, and use passive/active just like any other writing element.

I find passive voice is a very useful tool for pacing and character. For example, I have a rather dull and passive minor character in my current story and I deliberately switch to passive voice when describing him and his actions in an attempt to emphasise his nature to readers. It feels a bit overdone at the moment, but I'll fix (or abandon) that in the editing. I do love the experimentation and exploration aspects of writing!
 

tinkerdan

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If you've been deleting all those words you may be over-reacting and I'd have to agree with some others who indicated that what you really need to watch for is the inversions. Switching your subjects and verbs around and then putting them behind the object begin to create hard to read and awkward sentences and generally those are the most likely passive sentences.
 

RX-79G

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Deleting words or other rules of thumb are not going to produce good writing. Try actually speaking what you want to say - it is likely to be evident when you sound passive.
 

vonHelldorf

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If you've been deleting all those words you may be over-reacting and I'd have to agree with some others who indicated that what you really need to watch for is the inversions. Switching your subjects and verbs around and then putting them behind the object begin to create hard to read and awkward sentences and generally those are the most likely passive sentences.

I see what you mean. A technique I've found helpful is putting the subject at the start of the sentence followed by the verb. I've not been chopping words left, right and centre, just playing with the sentences in which the subject ought to be doing the action, rather than the other way around.
 

CylonScream

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Deleting words or other rules of thumb are not going to produce good writing. Try actually speaking what you want to say - it is likely to be evident when you sound passive.
I was having the same problem. After some help here at the Chrons, and talking to my wife, Ive literally been speaking my voice sentences out loud.

I found the more I would repeat a sentence in my head, over and over, It became a cluster of an "f word". Yes I feel silly talking to myself. But it keeps the sentence natural for me, and has helped tremendously.
 

CylonScream

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P.S. Welcome to the Group. You've found a great place full of intelligent but not egotistical folk that are friendly and so helpful. I scream "make fun of me" but have been overwhelmed with kindness!
 

tinkerdan

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Oddly enough::
Deleting words or other rules of thumb are not going to produce good writing. Try actually speaking what you want to say - it is likely to be evident when you sound passive.
:: Once read aloud.
You'll find that you will be deleting words using other rules of thumb to make the sentence flow smoothly and produce good writing.
But yes, the best way to do these are to read them and let your ears guide you.
 

AnyaKimlin

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Deleting words or other rules of thumb are not going to produce good writing. Try actually speaking what you want to say - it is likely to be evident when you sound passive.

Depends - it's like with the whole breath for commas we did at school (I know it's not accurate) -- my Scouse dialect (minus the accent) finds no breaths and passive sentences incredibly natural. It's like the Scots and Doric I have picked up places words, phrases and punctuation in naturally different places.

Maybe it's just me but I can't read a book by Gervase Phinn without going a little Yorkshire.

However, reading aloud is excellent - I do it every week at writers group and it picks up things...
 

Dennis E. Taylor

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And then there's passive-aggressive voice:

Passive-Agressive-Voice.jpg
 

RX-79G

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Depends - it's like with the whole breath for commas we did at school (I know it's not accurate) -- my Scouse dialect (minus the accent) finds no breaths and passive sentences incredibly natural. It's like the Scots and Doric I have picked up places words, phrases and punctuation in naturally different places.

Maybe it's just me but I can't read a book by Gervase Phinn without going a little Yorkshire.

However, reading aloud is excellent - I do it every week at writers group and it picks up things...
I suppose the answer to that is; if your character isn't a Scouse speaker, then you're going to have to do some acting when you're reading aloud. If you are writing for a London or New York audience, you'll have to become one of them when you write.

But I'll bet most of us have a pretty decent "news anchor" person in our heads that reads English in the most commonly accepted manner.
 

Kylara

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Some good tips here.

I would like to come in on the side of the passive voice (again!). I like the passive voice. I find it can add to the sentence and slow the reader down amongst other things. You can often imply more with passive.

The dog was being walked, slowly and distractedly, by Jane.

In my mind gives you more than,

Jane walked the dog slowly and distractedly.

It's too fast in active, the passive reinforced the adverbs (more adverbs!) and gives a more thoughtful sentence that slows the reader as is does the dog.
 

AnyaKimlin

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I suppose the answer to that is; if your character isn't a Scouse speaker, then you're going to have to do some acting when you're reading aloud. If you are writing for a London or New York audience, you'll have to become one of them when you write.

But I'll bet most of us have a pretty decent "news anchor" person in our heads that reads English in the most commonly accepted manner.

A natural voice and dialect it shouldn't be totally ignored in favour of Americans and Londoners (although London has its own dialect ;) ) I'm happy to temper my dialects to make them understandable but there is no way I'd change the basic voice and form of it. I would only have to become one of them when I write if I am writing someone from London or New York.

Jo's Inish Carraig sounds like it belongs in Belfast when read aloud. I have always bowed to her ability to make Abendau sound like it's not set there.

I appreciate it's hard for an American to grasp the diversity of dialects in the UK. We pack a lot of them into a tiny island. In some places they vary every 2-3 miles. These are the two I grew up with the most (although my gran said she wasn't a goat and there's no way she was being called Nan)

 

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