The Passive Voice

You’ve heard it eighty gazillion times: active voice good, passive voice bad.

But what does that mean? My experience in critique groups has been that not everybody even knows what’s really meant by “passive voice.” They can’t identify it, and so they’re not sure what’s so wrong about it. The purpose of this essay is to make that clear — and also to help you understand when the passive voice can be a good choice.


The Short Explanation

A is acted on by B.

John is eating an alligator. — active

John was eating an alligator. — active

John was eaten by an alligator. — passive

If your sentence fits that third model, it’s passive voice. If it doesn’t exactly fit that model, but you can rearrange (not change the words) so that it does, it’s passive voice.


The Slightly Longer Explanation

A sentence that uses active voice is one where the subject of the sentence is performing the action of the verb. Take the sentences above; in the first two, John is the one doing the eating. But in the third one, John is not eating; the alligator is. John is still the subject of the sentence, but he’s the passive victim of the alligator’s case of the munchies. The addition of a helping verb (like “was”) does not make the sentence passive, although I’ve seen people mis-identify it that way.

Not every passive sentence has a “by whomever” on the end, but if it’s there or you can mentally stick one in, you probably have passive voice.


The Long Technical Explanation

Feel free to skip this bit if a) you understand passive voice already or b) you don’t want to wade through lots of technical grammar terms. If either of these is the case, scroll down further to get to the bit where I talk about why passive voice is generally bad (but sometimes not).

Still here? Okay.

(Oh, and the terminology I’m used to comes from Latin grammar rather than English. That’s because I learned more about English grammar in Latin class than I ever did in English class. I think I use the right English-grammar terms in here, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. Also let me know if I’m somehow wrong in my explanation here; this is how I understand it, but I’m not a grammar specialist. Okay, enough disclaimers.)

A passive voice construction is made up, minimally, of three things: a subject (some noun or pronoun), a form of the verb “to be,” and the past participle of a transitive verb.

The first bit should be relatively clear. The second bit can be all kinds of different things: am, is, are, was, were, will be, has been, will have been, is being, etc. (I imagine, though I don’t know for sure, that colloquial use of “get” would also qualify, as in “John got eaten by an alligator.”)

The third bit is more complicated to recognize. A transitive verb is one that can take a direct object. “To thrive” is an intransitive verb; you can’t say something “is thrived.” “To lift,” on the other hand, is transitive; you can lift something, no problem. (In the grammatical sense, at least. Your muscles may have a different opinion.) A participle is a form of a verb that acts like an adjective, i.e. modifies a noun: lifting, for example, or lifted. The past participle (what I’m used to calling the perfect passive participle, from Latin grammar) is the one that indicates the action has already happened. That is, a person can be lifting right now, but a box has been lifted. I like the Latin term, because “perfect” means the action is completed, while “passive” indicates that the thing being modified by the adjective was the object of the action, not the subject. It makes the connection to passive voice clearer.

Past participles can take a lot of forms in English, unfortunately, which may make them hard to spot. Words ending in -ed are common (as with “lifted”). So are -en words (“broken”). Or -t (“built”). If you’re unsure, think about the word for a moment, and see if you can stick it on a noun as an adjective and have it indicate a past action — the lifted box, the broken chair, the built house. These can sometimes also be honest-to-god verb forms, as well as participles; I can say “he lifted the box” or “we built the house.” I cannot, however, say, “she broken the chair.” Yes, English is a messed-up language.

Anyway, if you have a subject, a form of the verb “to be,” and a past participle, you have passive voice. You may or may not also include what I believe is called the agent, i.e. the thing or person doing the action; as I said above, if you can mentally supply it for the sentence (“the box was lifted [by him]”), then it’s passive voice.

Incidentally, sometimes you’ll use the past participle and it’s not passive voice. Example: “That’s the chair broken last week.” That’s not passive voice because it doesn’t have the subject-to be-participle construction. “Broken,” in that phrase, is just an adjective modifying “chair.” There’s nothing wrong with this kind of sentence; if we didn’t use past participles that way, we’d be much more restricted in how we could say things.


Why Passive Voice Is Bad . . .

Passive voice, quite simply, deadens prose. I can’t quite explain why, without resorting to vague psychological mumblings about how nobody’s doing anything in any of the sentences, but it’s true; just try reading some academic writing and you’ll see. Academics are HORRIBLE abusers of the passive voice, because people have somehow gotten it into their heads that Passive Voice Is Weighty, and so it makes their ideas sound like they Mean Something.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve hit the passive voice in my academic readings, I’d use my fortune to fund a school where I’d teach academics how to write.

Using the passive voice means that the subjects of all of your sentences are passive. They’re not doing anything. They’re just sitting there, waiting for something to happen to them. This is bad enough in academic writing; it’s far worse in novels, where theoretically your characters are happily protagging their way through the plot. You especially don’t want to use passive voice in any scene that should be tense and exciting; there’s no quicker way to kill that tension dead.

And, if that weren’t condemnation enough for you, passive voice tends to require more words to say the same thing than active. Compare “John was eaten by the alligator” to “The alligator ate John.” If you’re desperate to pad out that paper for your professor, that’s one way to do it, but in fiction it’s just a bad idea. (And, for the record, and speaking as someone who grades student papers — I’d rather read a shorter paper that doesn’t put me to sleep, than one a few lines longer that leaves me in a coma. Use active voice. PLEASE.)


. . . But Not All the Time

There are instances, both in academic and fiction writing, where passive voice has its place.

Yeah, yeah, I know — heresy. Isn’t passive voice the tool of the devil? Well, yes, but only when abused. Like any other part of the English language.

There are two things passive voice does very nicely. The first is, it can leave unstated just who’s doing a particular action (if you leave out the agent clause in the sentence — the “by” bit). I see it used this way a lot in archaeological writing, where the writer can’t always be sure just who was doing a particular thing four thousand years ago. Better, sometimes, to put it in passive voice and say the thing was done. You can use it that way in fiction, too, if you’re determined to leave your reader in the dark, but there are usually better ways to do that.

The other use, I came to recognize when I translated a Latin poem by Catullus (85, for those playing along at home). The poem ends on the verb excrucior, which the various translations I’ve seen render as “feel with torment,” “feel it done to me,” “it shivers me,” and so on. I personally prefer a closely literal translation: “I am tortured.” The verb is passive in the Latin; it should be passive in the English. Why? Because part of what Catullus is trying to say to us (in his usual whiny way — I have limited patience for him as a person, I’m afraid, though I admire him as a poet) is that he’s the helpless victim of his passions and his lover’s penchant for toying with him. This poem is the one where he basically says, that’s it: I hate her, and I love her, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. Sucks to be me. (Call that a non-literal translation.) Rendering the final word in active translation takes away from the impact of what he’s trying to say.

So passive voice is very useful if you’re trying to get across the point that the subject is being passive. If the subject of the sentence is being subjected to something, and you really want the reader to feel that (rather than the action of the agent), then passive voice may be the way to go.

But use it sparingly. Otherwise, it is the tool of the devil.