EDITING KNOWHOW Active and passive voices

It's a new year. Everyone's raving about getting active. And it's not just the gym buffs. With editing in mind, Xena Knox is thinking about active and passive voice and how writers seem obsessed with keeping active.

What are Active and Passive Voices?

And why does everyone (almost everyone) tell you to avoid the passive voice?

Active voice (AV) is the most common voice used in English. It's what we learn as children. It follows the standard:

subject (aka agent) did/does something (verb) to an object (aka recipient)
Batgirl hit Supergirl. 

Apart from the potential super power fall-out, we're comfortable with this.

Passive Voice (PV) is the exact same scenario presented in a different sentence structure:

Supergirl was hit by Batgirl. 

The new subject of this sentence is Supergirl. But she's not the agent doing the action (verb). She's the recipient of the action. So the subject has a passive relationship with the verb. This passive verb sentence is also known as passive voice.

Yep! Verbs are the ones with the active or passive voices (active verb in AV, passive verb in PV)!

*brain explodes*

So how does this affect your reader?

Active (Verb) Voice

In AV, the action flows from the subject (agent), through the verb, to the object (recipient). As reader we visualise Batgirl, see her hit (picture her fist or her Batgirl motorbike) then we imagine the hand/bike making contact with Supergirl. It's laid out for us on the page exactly in the order it happens. We're propelled forward with the action and we're ready to read what happens next.

Passive (Verb) Voice

On the other hand – along with it often being more wordy – PV messes with time and takes us from the present, backwards to the past. At the end of the sentence we're lost. Are we continuing in the past? Or returning to the present? The energy feels static or expended. Imagine we start out on a piece of stretched elastic and, as the sentence progresses, we ping backwards, only to have to find our feet and trudge forwards onto the next event.

So why do inexperienced writers slip into Passive Voice?

Politicians, scientists and lawyers love it. Perhaps this is why many new writers emulate their grammatical style to add an air of authority to their writing. AV in contrast feels so rudimentary. We learned those sentence structures in primary school!

How and when should you use Passive Voice?


AV is the simplest way to convey information to your reader cleanly and clearly. However, you can use PV and not end up with dull, static writing. It can even pack a punch.

When you have missing information or wish to add mystery

With PV sentences you can omit the agent (instantly negating the more wordy argument).

• As the writer you may not know who hit Supergirl (the recipient). Say Batgirl (the agent) hit and run before you and the reader got to the scene.
• But it can also be because you want to withhold that information (who the agent was) from your reader to add mystery and tension.

Supergirl was hit.

You can't tell me that's a dull, undynamic sentence! Infuriating, perhaps – I want to know how and by whom – but bingo you've got me hooked.

When the recipient is more important than the agent

If the recipient will get a bigger emotional response from the reader in the position of subject rather than the object, then use PV.
Fire fighters rescued a puppy from a burning building.
A puppy was rescued from a burning building.

See how the puppy is all we care about in PV (again that trick of omitting the agent and leaving just the recipient). But equally if we included the fire fighters at the end – the puppy is the subject and still the star.

When a character has little autonomy

Presenting a character in PV you can, by association, highlight their passive nature or lack of power. And you can throw focus onto their plight by moving them to the subject position.

The housekeeper thrashed Pip daily.

Pip was thrashed daily.

When a character avoids responsibility

Politicians love to make statements in the PV.
You can show your character shirks accountability by speaking similarly in PV.

We/I/Someone made mistakes.

Mistakes were made.
(Ronald Reagan)(George Bush Snr & Jnr)(Bill Clinton)

… a serious mistake was made.
 (Barack Obama)

(Note that missing agent in every one)

While an active life and a mostly active voice is good for body, mind and manuscript, I hope this has gone some way to show there are instances when it's valid to take things down a notch, chill out, and embrace a little passivity. Active doesn't always equal good and passive doesn't equal bad, and anyway, this journey is about each of us finding our writing voices not those pesky vocal verbs.

*Featured image credit: www.proprofs.com


Zena McFadzean aka Xena Knox is a self-deprecating Scot living between the Scottish Borders and Crystal Palace, South London. She loves writing gritty, humorous YA novels and is represented by Jo Williamson at Antony Harwood Ltd. Twitter & Instagram: @XenaKnox

1 comment:

  1. And another thing... mostly that politicians do it, but it's worth noting. You can combine active and passive to shift the nature of the actvity being discussed, as in 'I acknowledge that mistakes were made'. This allows the speaker to *appear* to take responsibility, but still renounces agency for the iniquitous act itself, just claiming 'acknowledgement' as their action.


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