Thursday, July 12, 2012

Passive Voice

I've read several books on writing advice, and not one favored passive voice in writing.  But does it have a purpose?
Passive voice is easiest to explain through an example, such as: The dog was hit by the car.  Note that the subject of the sentence (dog) is actually the recipient of the action rather than the actor.  The same sentence rendered in active voice is: The car hit the dog.  (Perhaps if you put the original sentence in all capital letters, it would become a passive-aggressive sentence.)

I find passive sentences to be apologetic.  I'm sorry you had to read this sentence, but here's the rest of what happened; sorry to trouble you.  They seem like a mopey friend who sighs before telling their latest tale of woe.

Preferring active voice over passive voice, however, is a style choice; it is not a grammatical rule.  As such, we have the liberty, as writers, to choose passive voice whenever we like.  We don't even need a flimsy "artistic license" argument.

One purpose for the passive voice is to draw attention to the recipient.  Perhaps the actor is less important or even unknown.  For example: The dog was hit yesterday. 

It might also help with comedic or dramatic timing, such as: The dog was hit yesterday.  But there wasn't a scratch on the spaceship.

Passive voice may also help with pacing or dialog (though there really are no rules for dialog since people ignore proper grammar in everyday speech). 

But I caution against throwing caution to the wind.  Just because we can do something, doesn't mean we can do it well.  Active voice is strong; it is direct.  It throws down words and means it.  Be purposeful in what you're writing, and if you can avoid the passive voice without sacrificing the story, do so.  There are times when it might sound better, and if so, go for it.  But those times should be few.

I will close with this passive-voice example to demonstrate that it does have its purposes:

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."  - Winston Churchill, 1940

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