Could you explain the passive voice to me?”J.
Let’s make this short and sweet.
Passive: I was pulled over by a cop
Active: A cop pulled me over.
In an active sentence the subject acts; in a passive sentence the subject is being acted upon.
Why do people advise against using passive voice.
The beach was battered by angry waves. The houses were buffeted by the wind. The shutters were pulled by the storm, straining to stay closed. The sky was filled with dark clouds.
Angry waves battered the beach. Wind buffeted the houses. The storm pulled at the shutters that strained to stay closed. Dark clouds filled the sky.
The second example is clearer, faster, and reads better.
When should you use passive voice?
First, when you have to present necessary information, but you want to keep the focus on the subject of the sentence.
The house was built by Mr. White in 1990. Tall, contemporary, and pure white, it perched among the lilacs and myrtles, a collection of right angles and rectangular boxes that somehow managed to look weightless.
Mr. White built the house in 1990. Tall, contemporary, and pure white, it perched among the lilacs and myrtles, a collection of right angles and rectangular boxes that somehow managed to look weightless.
In the first example, the focus is on the house. It’s the house that’s important. In the second example, the focus is on Mr. White. We’re waiting to hear more about him rather than the house.
Second, when you want to present a feeling of being acted upon, of being helpless or inconsequential, where who performed the action becomes less important than the action itself.
I was bound, gagged, and thrown into a cell.
The small boat was shattered to pieces.
Jennifer was fired.
Using passive voice is often necessary and appropriate. Remember, if the story needs it, do it, and don’t worry so much about the “right” way.
But what about the passive aggressive voice?
Mary Beth says
And that burnt my nose as I snorfled tea. LOL
Thank you, a much needed giggle.
+1 (but iced tea, still a bit warm for hot)
It’s never too hot for hot tea…also I live in the desert so if I waited until it was cool then I’d rarely be able to drink anything hot. =P
I think it is partially cultural for me. My family is from central LA (the state) – Steel Magnolias (Natchitoches) area. My mother had never seen anyone drink hot tea until we moved to NC when I was in kindergarten. Tea was iced, coffee was hot. I don’t drink coffee, so I do drink hot tea, but it has to be cool for me to do so, otherwise I prefer iced tea. I am also much fussier about my hot tea (like to have nice loose tea leaves from places like Upton Tea, etc.) than I am about iced tea (fine to use Lipton for iced, but won’t drink it hot).
This is one of those comments that’s going to pop into my head at odd moments of the day and make me laugh and then when someone asks why I’m laughing, I won’t be able to explain it well and will end with “you had to read it”.
I’d love to see a teacher sneak that into a class and see how long it takes someone to catch onto what they said.
Helga P. says
A perfect blog post would have that. I not mad though. Really, I’m not upset. It’s fine.
That happens when you want your wife to act upon you for being a smart-ass, I think… my guy is a pro at it. 😉
I used to explain passive voice to students this way. There’s a difference between a parent saying, “Why didn’t you do the dishes?” and, “I notice the dishes were not done.” Invariably got cringes followed by visible understanding. =P
That is reserved for the spoken word as it loses something when written. Or not, if you are the master.
A perfect example of why I love you both so very much.
Given that you left the house abandoning me to work alone so you can buy the kids a gaming laptop, I think you should be more concerned about the aggressive-aggressive voice.
This is so me.
(I mean, when I’m not working in a pleasant – if not fully unpacked – study, on the sofa, with half grown cats. But if anyone tells me I have to do all of the special character encoding by hand, it will be time for Clear Language. And then possibly I will take some time to see how many languages I remember how to curse it.)
R Coots says
When not to use passive voice: when you need to meet s word count. Or when you are trying to hard to emulate past common writing styles.
Honest to Pete. I just read *counts* 10 books by the same author (writing Regency romance, so I sort of see why it was done), and she used ‘had been, was, etc’ so often to describe what was going on and what had already happened that I lost track of if the events described where in the present or past. And if aaaaaaalll those words were cut out and the sentences rewritten in active voice, then the book would have been shorter by a third. (I won’t get into the way the passive voice sections often described events that happened in just the previous chapter. Arg)
R Coots says
Whoops. That was meant to be an entirely new comment, not a reply. The hazards of reading/replying on a phone. *slinks off*
Ellen D says
Dad must have needed to score some kid points.
Patricia Schlorke says
Uh-oh! I’ll sound like Conlan. 😀
Aggressive- aggressive voice. LOLOLs…I’m familiar with the use of this. ???? a recent scenario involved the hubby giving our 10 year old nothing but sugary crap to eat all day, including a lollipop that you actually dip in MORE sugary goop!
Joe D says
The last gaming laptop i bought really ran hot, i got a “notebook cooler” from amazon and it really helped bigly.
Please, please, please teach a composition class using the passive-aggressive voice!! ????????
Well, I suppose that’s fine. No, really.
I see you’ve met my mother.
Mary Cruickshank Peed says
I’m going to hang on to this.
Maybe I’m going to make a poster out of it. Corporatee reports are all passive voice. My biggest problem writing fiction is that it often reads like a corporate report. … Dull…
Fascinating that Gordon sees himself as Milo Bloom…
Whoa! Yes!!!!! Everytime I see it I have wracked my brain ! Yes he is Milo. Thankyou.
Anne-Marie McRoberts says
You racked your brains. Rack is nasty mediaeval instrument of torture that wrenched joints and sinews apart. Wrack is seaweed. I hope you’re not wearing a seaweed poultice.
Ti Birchrose says
“Bob, could you help me with…You know what? Never mind. I’ll just do it myself.”
Lynn Thompson says
Ha. I wondered about that. I have a sibling that is a master of being passive aggressive. 2 alpha, 1 passive and 1 passive
aggressive and 1 narcissistic .
Thank you Ilona Andrews for the LOL.
I was pulled over by a cop because the government needs to squeeze every single cent they can out of me.
Does that count…?
We would like examples please. 😉
When should we use the passive aggressive?
Is it most appropriate when a teen is responding? Or is that playing to a stereotype?
Aggressive voice vs Passive Aggressive.
I think it’s time for a demo snippet.
Feed the Horde 😀
Get yarn to avoid aggressive-aggressive agro. Then roll for advantage.
Gordon, men don’t win those arguments. It’s a universal constant.
Brittany V. says
I had a teacher while I was getting my undergrad who would write “by zombies” after passive sentences to get us to recognize them.
bwaaaaaaa haaaaaaaa haaaaaaaa “by zombies” hahahahhaha
I just went thru it again and added by zombies after all the passive voice examples. Lol.
The last 3 with “by zombies” are hilarious.
???????? Great teacher!!!
For my school papers I always lose points for using a passive voice. Sometimes I take the time to work through and rewrite and sometime I will just take the hit. Proof writers are awesome because you guys take the time to make the wording work.
Be aware that the passive voice is a much more stringent no-no in business writing. I got my butt kicked (figuratively) by my bosses at my first two “real” jobs any time I used the passive voice. Business writing should always place the actor first. Personally, I think a little less actor-driving and a bit more action-driving would be a significant improvement in today’s business world, but I also have no ability to provide you with a paycheck.
I agree it’s often important to avoid active in business language, but even in that context sometimes it is right. Usually, like in Ilona’s example of the house, because you want focus on the act, or the subject, not the person acting.
Passive, not active!
“Correct” is not the same thing as “tolerated.” Everyone with the smallest desire for promotion wants everyone above hir to be entirely aware of WHO did the thing. If it’s a good thing, I did it. If it’s a bad thing, zie did it.
Linda R says
On a different topic: weather
Are you and the rest of House Andrews safe and dry?
Ms. Kim says
… passive aggressive … wuhhahahaha
When I was still teaching, I told my students that the most important passive voice sentence is, “you’re fired.” After all, it doesn’t matter by whom, zombies or the government—you are still out of a job. They got the idea.
Thanks for the explanation and the snarky comments ????
Have a great weekend!
I am a physician. EVERYTHING in the note occurs in the passive voice.
Yes. I had a temp job for two months typing up dictated patient notes. Stan presented with a belly ache. Or, Stan complained of pain to his lower belly. Every sentence afterward was in the passive voice, as things were palpated on and pressed into Stan. Until Stan became passive aggressive.
Nostalgia grabbed and shook me fiercely upon seeing the picture of Milo. Squeezing my heart and bringing back the very last windows – peeking in at a penguin, of a story well told. The pages are still folded and hidden, until I need a good cry.
Oops, that was supposed to be down at the bottom of comments. I had been overcome with feelings. Lol
Sharon Bailey says
I am an engineer and have to do a lot of technical writing. The number of times that reviewers have changed my text from a perfectly readable active voice to a dull flat passive voice is legend (I ignore most of their suggestions when I can). PhDs and people coming out of academia are some of the worst offenders. Or people who like to use correct but uncommon words to sound important. Since we do a lot of work for the federal govt, they can get away with it – however most large companies are moving to the active voice since it is more readable
Passive can get old, but have you ever tried writing a document in the third person?
Yes! Some journals require writing in third-person…”there is no “I” in research”; others require first-person.
Other Barbara says
I am not a writer, just wonder at arc decisions in a series. Some Other Authors seem to add more and complex arc details with each subsequent book.
the tales gets short shrift and the arc seems overwhelming. (To me)
How do authors approach an overall theme, and you in particular.
Do you map out an short/medium/long arc at the beginning..Hidden legacy 1-3 but not all the 15 plus books we demand in all your series?
Did you really decide to change Hugh to good guy due to the April fools joke or was there a back burner thought during writing?
Was Roland’s end from book 12 planned when you wrote books 1-5?
Where should we address various types of questions? Blog, Facebook, flying plane banner?
I’d go in on the banner thing, if I wasn’t imagining IA standing in their backyard screaming ‘by zombies’ and planning ways to super painfully murder characters named after us aggressive fans in their books. (Which still wouldn’t be a bad thing?)
Other Barbara says
Oh to be a character in IA books as opposed to ancient local NJ character with a mobility scooter.
I could then do all I used to do. Horses. Dogs. Martial arts. Reading a book a day.
Perhaps KD will be a decedent of some lost Barbara Branch!
Banner Questions plan in motion. (I had a roommate probably reader’s granny now, who was a pilot, flew summer banners at jersey shore)
FYI my school, grade 7-12, 1968, did not teach grammar. I have no clue what any voice is, or participles. Sigh.
Thank the Lord IA do not require literacy of their fans. ❤️
If ever there is a naming contest for a book on the blog, I nominate (Other) Barbara!
What a great explanation. If I were still teaching English or writing I would do a lesson with this as it’s basis. Hope you don’t mind if I pass it on to those still in the fray.
Holygawd! I guess Grammar has gone the way of Cursive Writing and the Dodo.
Thank you for a great explanation! I hope you don’t mind if I use some of it with my high school students. Also the comments….passive aggressive, with zombies and aggressive aggressive! Gold.
Love it! and Gordon’s comment too!
Have a great weekend,
Wait. Who fired Jennifer? And why?
+++1! I love the BDH! Thank you to IA and all. Today’s blog is great!
Jennifer was fired by zombies. Their flesh-eating ways made it difficult for Jennifer to work with them without fear of getting eaten.
I would have loved to read a summary like this when I started English classes. Thank you ♡
As I college composition instructor, I find passive voice to be quite effective when used properly, so I don’t penalize students who do it right. I just try to make sure they do it right (or not at all) (same with semicolons!).
I love reading your posts about writing because I learn so much and usually get to laugh out loud, too. ????
J.Lee Conaway says
Thank you. Gotta copy this info to keep.
Thank you, this was very helpful!
Other Barbara says
Wait, wait. Passive voice means describing it in the past? It was, or he did?
Like tense in a verb?
My first BBS encounter was people explaining my spelling mistake..I spelled grammar as Grammer, a Jersey accent in real life.
Not really. That’s just the tense of the examples she used. It’s more like the kinds of sentences that end, or could end, in “by *noun.*” It’s all about where the reader’s focus goes while reading the sentence, but a good rule of thumb is if you can tack on “by zombies” at the end of the sentence, it’s passive.
Jennifer was fired by zombies.
The small boat was shattered into pieces by zombies.
I was bound, gagged, and thrown into a cell by zombies.
If you notice the examples before those three in the original post, all the passive sentences end in saying who/what did the action of the sentence.
I know this is Old News but I only get the lesser version of the NYT Book Review with my Sunday Toronto Star, so I just saw it today.
CONGRATULATIONS!!! No. 5 on the Best Sellers List for Sapphire Flames!!!!
Richard Cartwright says
Teenagers are masters of the passive aggressive voice.