Pinches of Salt 2: Passive voice is to be avoided

See what I did there?

If you don’t, you really should keep reading.

This is one of the pieces of writing advice that annoys me the most, because it is so, so often misunderstood. But writers are still urged to expunge all examples of passive voice from their writing.

First of all, what is passive voice? This is really important, because in order to understand when you should and shouldn’t use passive voice, you have to be able to identify what it actually is, and a surprising number of people always seem to get this wrong. Passive voice is when the object of a verb gets moved to the subject position in a sentence. In other words, normal subject-verb-object order is “X verbs Y”. In passive voice, Y is verbed by X. So instead of “I reprimanded the unicorn”, we have “The unicorn was reprimanded by me”. Sometimes the person or thing doing the verbing is left off – as in “The unicorn was reprimanded”.

A common misconception seems to be that a passive sentence is any one that has the word “was” in it. It’s true that many passive sentences have the word “was” in them. This is because the passive voice almost always uses a form of the verb “to be”, and as a lot of writing is in simple past tense, the word “was” is often hanging around there. But these sentences are also all in passive voice, and guess what? There is not a “was” to be seen (did you get that one too? *winkyface*).

  •                 Passive voice is to be avoided
  •                 I had been chained to the polar bear.
  •                 I got told off. (Technically, this should have a “was” in it, but you would hear this in colloquial speech, certainly from my children.)

You know the zombie trick, right? The zombie trick is a good way of identifying the passive voice. If you can add “by zombies” on the end of a sentence and not alter its meaning, then it’s usually passive voice. You can do it to all of those sentences above. It doesn’t have to be zombies, obviously. It can be anything. By headteachers. By spiders. By a horde of tiny ducks playing mariachi music. As Iva Cheung points out in this cartoon, it’s not an infallible tool (kids, what have I told you about pinches of salt?), but it can be a useful check if you’re unsure.

So, now we know what passive voice is, we can all hunt it down and take it out. Well, yes, we can. But should we? Come on, you know better than that by now. Let’s have a look at the problems of passive voice, because it really does have a few big ones.

The most basic problem is that passive voice is wordier than active voice. “I drank all the wine” is five words. “All the wine was drunk by me” is seven. That’s two extra words I just typed, which is two words’ worth of wine-drinking time. What a waste. So you should often avoid passive voice for simple reasons of brevity and efficiency.

The second problem is stiltedness. Like, who would actually ever say “All the wine was drunk by me”? Nobody, that’s who. It leads to unnatural, clunky-sounding sentences, and that’s rarely a thing you want. Combine these first two problems, and it’s clear to see that active voice usually results in cleaner, punchier, more natural sentences, and that’s usually a Good Thing.

Another problem is that passive voice can obscure agency. The sentence “It was discovered that all the wine had been drunk” immediately raises three questions: who drank all the wine, who discovered it, and why didn’t they share it with me? The reader is left with questions, and that’s often not a desirable thing. In most cases, but not all, and we’ll talk about that in a minute, you want to give your reader information, not hide it. Passive voice shifts the focus from whoever did the thing to whoever the thing was done to, and this can often be used to shift the sense of responsibility away from the do-er. The classic non-apology – I’m sorry if anyone was offended – is in passive voice, and it manages to imply that the offence-taking was a choice by the offended, rather than the perpetrator being offensive.

It’s example time! With our questions, naturally.

“All the Pringles were eaten by Kia.”

  • What problem is this piece of advice trying to combat? The identity of the Pringle-eater is pretty clear, so perhaps we’ve got stiltedness and wordiness.
  • Does this sentence actually suffer from this problem? I would say so.
  • What effect would applying this piece of advice have on this sentence? It would say the same thing in fewer words: “Kia ate all the Pringles.”
  • Is that the effect I want? Yes, why wouldn’t you?
  • Result – rewrite into the active voice, and buy Kia more Pringles.

“The walls had been painted yellow.”

  • What problem is this piece of advice trying to combat? This doesn’t particularly seem wordy or stilted, so it must be the agency thing.
  • Does this sentence actually suffer from this problem? Yes, we don’t know who painted the walls yellow.
  • What effect would applying this piece of advice have on this sentence? We would have to say “Somebody had painted the walls yellow”, which is still an okay sentence, but it’s not necessarily an improvement. We still don’t know who painted the walls yellow, but maybe we don’t need to. But now we’re picturing a mysterious “somebody” painting the walls yellow.
  • Is that the effect I want? Actually the important thing is that the walls, which were once black, have now been painted yellow, so no, I don’t think it is. It’s actually a little distracting
  • Result – keep in the passive voice.

“How did my father die?”

“He was eaten by wolves.”

  • What problem is this piece of advice trying to combat? Again, we have the choice of wordiness, stiltedness, or shifting of agency.
  • Does this sentence actually suffer from this problem? Well, it doesn’t seem particularly stilted to me; in fact, it seems like a perfectly natural thing to say. It doesn’t seem excessively wordy, and it’s totally clear who did what to what.
  • What effect would applying this piece of advice have on this sentence? The alternative is “Wolves ate him.” That’s obviously fewer words, but it doesn’t seem to flow quite right.
  • Is that the effect I want? No – that’s not a natural way to answer the question. The reason for this is one of the “problems” mentioned above – the shifting of focus. The conversation is clearly about the first character’s father, not about wolves. The subject of the conversation is the father, so it makes sense for him to be in the subject position of the sentence too.
  • Result – keep in the passive voice.

The last example illustrates an important point, that of what people would naturally say. Native English speakers don’t, as a rule, tend to go around worrying about whether they’re speaking in the passive voice or not. We say the sentence how it needs to be said according to context. If you’re writing realistic, human characters, then try and do the same as you would with your normal day-to-day speech, which is trust your instincts. Write things how your character would naturally say them. That’s going to serve you a lot better than hunting down every “was” or putting “by zombies” on the end of every sentence. Or “by a horde of tiny ducks playing mariachi music”. That last one would make for a somewhat interesting novel, though.

4 thoughts on “Pinches of Salt 2: Passive voice is to be avoided

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