Don’t use passive voice; use active voice.
Ever heard that writing rule?
It’s a good guideline, for sure, but like any writing rule, exceptions abound.
First, what is passive voice?
Passive voice shows up when something or someone is being acted upon rather than doing the acting. It’s usually a weak way to construct a sentence or a scene because your characters are like chess pieces being moved around and having stuff thrown at them rather than actually doing anything themselves.
Often passive voice can be changed with a little tweaking, and doing so almost always results in a stronger sentence.
Tom was hit by a car.
This is passive because the car is the one actually doing the action. Tom is the recipient of the effect.
The car hit Tom.
That’s active, but it’s still a bit telly.
Since the first sentence (Tom was hit by a car) was rather non-specific (ie telly), let’s do better on both counts. Let’s show AND use active voice:
A red Jeep squealed around the corner, its headlights staring Tom in the face. He dove for the sidewalk, but too late; the grill smacked into his torso, and tires rolled over his legs. A pop and a crunch, and then silence, save for Tom’s heavy breathing and a sensation of shock eclipsing the pain in his broken legs.
Now the car (or, the Jeep, since we’re adding specificity) is acting. Tom’s still on the receiving end, but the action is much better.
Passive voice is one reason writers are cautioned to avoid WAS constructions. They aren’t all passive voice (contrary to what some writers teach or have been taught, haha—that was passive voice), but it’s a clue that you might be dealing with it.
So here’s a fun detail: sometimes you WANT passive voice.
1) Use passive voice when the common sentence construction demands it and changing the sentence to active would call attention to itself. Such as:
He got arrested.
Sure, that’s passive, but it’s also the way that term is generally used. Pointing out that police officers did the arresting is kinda silly, and it would detract.
(Note that here and in many cases, it’s GET/GOT that’s the key for noting passive voice, not WAS.)
2) When you’re deliberately trying to avoid pointing out the person/thing who acted.
Pay attention to commercials or company communications: they rarely accept responsibility for anything, and they do so by using passive voice:
“We regret that your washing machine was improperly installed” keeps it passive and the focus on the washer.
They’d never say, “We regret that our technician installed your washer improperly,” because then the spotlight is on their shortcomings and gives the customer ammunition for a refund.
You can do the same thing in your writing. Mysteries are rife with passive voice when we don’t know WHO done it: “The victim was stabbed five times.” Trying to avoid passive voice there would feel a bit acrobatic and awkward to the reader.
Another case to use passive voice: when you’re deliberately trying to hide the person who is acting.
“Mom, one of the car’s headlights got smashed,” a teen says, and then slinks to their room, hoping Mom assumes it was a hit-and-run in a parking lot or something, even though the teen is the one who busted the light by driving into a lamp post.
Or when a teacher walks in to see chaos and says, “What’s going on here?”and the class replies, “The same thing that happens every day.”
(Careful not to point out that THEY are the ones doing whatever they shouldn’t be.)
To sum up:
- Passive voice is when the sentence shows what is happening to who/what but avoids using the subject of the action as the subject of the sentence.Most of the time, passive voice is weak and should be avoided.
- WAS/GOT tend to signal passive voice.
- But not all sentences with those words are passive voice.
- Use passive voice when you (or a character) want to conceal who is doing the action.
Okay, so let’s try it: After Thanksgiving, I’m amazed at how much pie GOT EATEN.
Ahem. (See? With passive voice, I admit to nothing . . .)
Annette Lyon is a Whitney Award winner, the recipient of Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction, and the author of eight novels, a cookbook, and a grammar guide, plus over a hundred magazine articles. She’s a senior editor at Precision Editing Group and a cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English. When she’s not writing, editing, knitting, or eating chocolate, she can be found mothering and avoiding the spots on the kitchen floor. Find her online at blog.annettelyon.com and on Twitter: @AnnetteLyon.
Need a little extra grammar help? Get Annette’s grammar book, There, Their, They’re: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar from the Word Nerd.