PDA

View Full Version : So what is the passive voice?


SFFWorld.com
Home - Discussion Forums - News - Reviews - Interviews

New reviews, interviews and news

New in the Discussion Forum


Pages : [1] 2

Crieum
December 16th, 2004, 12:28 PM
Somebody mentioned the passive voice in another thread which got me thinking.

The passive voice is probably my greatest paranoia. I think the paranoia stems from the fact that I do not completly understand what the passive voice is.

Everytime I use the word "was" in a sentance I shudder.

Can anyone explain the passive voice and save me from my own paranoia?

Prunesquallor
December 16th, 2004, 01:08 PM
Passive and Active Voices
Verbs are also said to be either active (The executive committee approved the new policy) or passive (The new policy was approved by the executive committee) in voice. In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed (The new policy was approved). Computerized grammar checkers can pick out a passive voice construction from miles away and ask you to revise it to a more active construction. There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice, but if you can say the same thing in the active mode, do so (see exceptions below). Your text will have more pizzazz as a result, since passive verb constructions tend to lie about in their pajamas and avoid actual work.

We find an overabundance of the passive voice in sentences created by self-protective business interests, magniloquent educators, and bombastic military writers (who must get weary of this accusation), who use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for actions taken. Thus "Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children" places the burden on the ads — as opposed to "We designed the cigarette ads to appeal especially to children," in which "we" accepts responsibility. At a White House press briefing we might hear that "The President was advised that certain members of Congress were being audited" rather than "The Head of the Internal Revenue service advised the President that her agency was auditing certain members of Congress" because the passive construction avoids responsibility for advising and for auditing. One further caution about the passive voice: we should not mix active and passive constructions in the same sentence: "The executive committee approved the new policy, and the calendar for next year's meetings was revised" should be recast as "The executive committee approved the new policy and revised the calendar for next year's meeting."

http://webster.commnet.edu/grammar/passive.htm

Expendable
December 16th, 2004, 02:53 PM
*applauds* Well done.

Crieum
December 16th, 2004, 03:15 PM
Good stuff Prune. Thanks for the info.

Sammie
December 16th, 2004, 04:05 PM
Some additions to the times when the passive voice is used:

It is always correct to use the passive voice in a write-up of a scientific investigation/experiment:

"The copper sulphate was placed in the test tube" is correct.

"I placed the copper sulphate in the test tube" shouts 'I am an amateur who can't write up his/her own experiments'!

My understanding is that changing from active to passive voice is a switch in subject/object in order to change the emphasis of a sentence. We use the passive voice to emphasise an active OBJECT (less normal in sentance structure) or when the subject of the active sentence is not known.

eg.

Active: The cow (subject) ate the grass (object).
The subject performing the action recieves the emphasis of the sentance.

Passive: The grass (subject) was eaten by the cow (object). The emphasis is on the fact that the action was performed on the particular object of the active sentence - so it has become the passive subject.

In this example the cow is the 'active subject' and the 'passive object'. The grass is the 'active object' and the 'passive subject'. It is perfectly acceptable to refer to the active and passive objects, rather than the suject and object, when breaking down a passive voice sentence.

The passive voice is the standard voice for news reporting. "A thief was arrested today"

We are not informed as to the 'subject' that is a prerequisite of an active-voice sentence. (Ie The police arrested a thief today). In short, good News reporting should be objective, never subjective!! :D

I dislike the implication inferred by the Webster's quote above, that the passive voice is incorrect, or somehow 'faux superior'. This is only true when it is used inappropriately.

Lastly: the clearest way to emphasise the difference between passive and active voices is to break down the construction:

Active:
Sammie loves chocolate.
Subject verb object.

Passive:
Chocolate is loved (by Sammie)
Subject (also known as the active object) AUXILLIARY VERB MAIN VERB (by (passive) object)

Note that the active voice uses just the one verb, whereas the passive ALWAYS uses two. The auxilliary verb is always derived from the verb 'to be' (eg. he was, they are etc). The main verb is always the past participle (drunk, loved, wanted, paid etc). Once this makes sense to you, passive voice sentences will become pretty easy to spot.....eg:

You are not wanted!
He was loved.
She was danced out of the room.
She was spun off her feet.
They were welcomed home.
Sffworld members were asked about the passive voice.
Webster's were found to be a load of rubbish.
...etc :p

All use (subject)+(to be)+(past participle). All are passive sentences - several of which also demonstrate that the passive voice has a place in good fiction, too! :)

As with an active sentence, the object is not essential to a complete sentence, but where it is included in the passive it is always preceeded by 'by' ("A heffalump was trapped by Pooh and Piglet"). For this reason, an easy way of checking if a sentence is written in the passive voice is to look for the words 'by someone'/'by a noun' on the end, and if they are absent then try to add them. She was spun off her feet by Mr Darcy, for example. If you can add 'by someone' then it's probably passive.

You are probably using the passive voice a lot more than you think, Crieum!!

Crieum
December 16th, 2004, 05:00 PM
I think I have a better idea of what to look for after reading the last few posts.

It's sentences like "The sky was dark as the postman began his route" that confuse me. Is this a passive sentence? If so, what should it be instead?

Crieum
December 16th, 2004, 05:08 PM
Here's a sample of my writing, I don't feel like I'm using the passive voice, but am I?

The slaver ship ‘Punisher’ skipped across the Sea of Brimforth like a rock thrown by an angry god. Built specifically to handle the treacherous run between the ports of Storm Watch and Fallerye, the clipper was strong enough to endure the fiercest wave, and quick enough to out distance the fastest pursuer.
The Punisher’s mettle was being put to the test as she streaked into the open sea. A treacherous storm had blow in, riling the ocean into an angry wet monster. Giant waves lifted the ship high into the air, and then dropped it down without mercy. Furious winds tore at the sails, the mast groaning ominously under the strain.
The Punisher’s crew was a small but experienced lot. They braved the sea’s fury with practiced conviction. Each man knew that to fail his duty was to incur the captain’s wrath, a fate more terrible fate then the sea could ever deliver.

Drew
December 16th, 2004, 10:17 PM
Here's a sample of my writing, I don't feel like I'm using the passive voice, but am I?

The slaver ship ‘Punisher’ skipped across the Sea of Brimforth like a rock thrown by an angry god. Built specifically to handle the treacherous run between the ports of Storm Watch and Fallerye, the clipper was strong enough to endure the fiercest wave, and quick enough to out distance the fastest pursuer.
The Punisher’s mettle was being put to the test as she streaked into the open sea. A treacherous storm had blow in, riling the ocean into an angry wet monster. Giant waves lifted the ship high into the air, and then dropped it down without mercy. Furious winds tore at the sails, the mast groaning ominously under the strain.
The Punisher’s crew was a small but experienced lot. They braved the sea’s fury with practiced conviction. Each man knew that to fail his duty was to incur the captain’s wrath, a fate more terrible fate then the sea could ever deliver.

The bold is passive voice.

You could get away with it a few times in a story, just don't overuse it.

TheEarCollector
December 16th, 2004, 11:29 PM
As a general rule if you are glancing over something looking for passive voice, looking for "was" or "is" is a HUGE hint (though not always necessarily proof of passive voice). Any form of the "to be" verbs can make a sentence passive.

What is really wrong with passive voice? Well, aside from the fact that it is abused, it is usually used incorrectly. What do I mean? Using the passive voice makes the subject weak.

I bring up my Red Badge of Courage quote again:
"He was being stared at by the corpse."

It puts the corpse in control of the situation, and it makes the main subject of the paragraph/story (him) weak. I hope that helps clear up why it is passive just a little more.

Dawnstorm
December 17th, 2004, 12:43 AM
The sky was dark as the postman began his route.

No passive voice. Sky is subject, sky is being dark not being darkened.

I found three instances of passive voice in your paragraph:

"Built specifically to handle the treacherous run"

"like a rock thrown by an angry god"

"The Punisher’s mettle was being put to the test"

I doubt anyone would take issue with the first two. The first one avoids bringing in an irrelevant subject (do we really care who built the ship at that point in the story) and the second one emphasises the way the sea handles the ship, keeping the ship (compared to a rock) as subject.

The last one is debatable. The paragraph isn't about the ship anymore; it's about the sea, and what it does to it. On the other hand, the use of the passive voice can be said to serve as transition.

***

A few instances, when passive voice can be used profitably:

When something happened to someone/something but we don't know who's responsible:

The bird had been mauled badly. He shivered. What on Earth could do that to an ostrich?

I would prefer that to:

Something had mauled the bird badly. He shivered. What on Earth could do that to an ostrich?

Use the passive voice to avoid change of subject:

As soon as he arrived home, he was arrested.

I'd prefer that to:

As soon as he arrived home, a police officer arrested him.

(Perhaps not always, though...)


When emphasis is on the action(s) that happened to someone, not on the one who performed it (them):

He'd been kissed. For the first time in his life, he'd been kissed. What a marvellous day it was!

I'm sure there are more situations where the passive voice can be used (should that be "where a writer can use the passive voice"? :p )