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Monday, September 17, 2018

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Passive Voice"

You may have heard the advice that you shouldn't write in passive voice. You may have even been reprimanded for doing so. But passive voice isn't always a bad thing. So let's talk about what the rule is, why it's a rule, and when to break it.

What's the Rule?

Passive voice has to do with sentence structure, not word choice. Some people get confused and think any sentence with a to-be verb in it is passive. This is not the case. Every passive sentence will naturally have a to-be verb in it, but not every sentence with one is passive.

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon. For example:

Tony was bitten by the cat.

The wagons were pulled by oxen.

The carpet was ruined.

My bike was stolen.

Cannibalism is frowned upon by most societies.

Notice that in each of these, something is happening to the subject, the subject isn't doing the action. Also notice how every sentence requires a to-be verb in it.

Tony(subject) was bitten(action done) by the cat(what did the action).

The wagons(subject) were pulled(action done) by oxen(what did the action).

The carpet(subject) was ruined(action done).

 My bike(subject) was stolen(action done).

Cannibalism(subject) is frowned(action done) upon by most societies.

 Active voice is what we typically write in, where the subject is doing the action.

The cat bit Tony.

The oxen pulled the wagons.

Jared stole my bike.

Most societies frown upon cannibalism.

 Generally writers are discouraged from using passive voice.

Why it's a Rule

Active voice leads to stronger sentences. Reading about being acted upon, along with all those to-be verbs can make writing feel weak and wordy. Just imagine what it would be like if you sustained it for very long.

Tony was bitten by the cat. A band-aid was found by his mother and put on by his father. Cats are considered a common pet. Tony's hand had been marred by teeth punctures. The cat was no longer wanted.

Annoying, isn't it?

Passive voice can also reverse the way people naturally think. When reading "Tony was bitten by the cat," they have to imagine the cat biting Tony.

Active voice naturally carries more power. "The cat bit Tony" is more interesting. Generally speaking, we want to read stories that feel alive and active, not stories about people and things simply being acted upon.

Finally, passive voice can feel more indirect and non-specific. "The carpet was ruined." Great. But who or what ruined it?

When to Break it

1. We don't know who performed the action.

Maybe no one knows that Jared is the person who stole the bike. In that case it might be best to write "My bike was stolen."

However, an alternative to that is to say, "Someone stole my bike."

Some people oppose words like "someone" or "something" because they are non-specific. Personally, I don't think they are any worse than passive voice.

2. Who performed the action is irrelevant or unimportant.

Maybe we know who performed the action, but it's no one important to the story or the situation at hand, a character or thing so minor that to mention them specifically would be to draw too much attention to them.

"The vending machine had been restocked."

3. You want to emphasize what's being acted upon or what's being acted upon is more important than the actor.

Passive voice changes the emphasis in a sentence. So maybe a cat bit Tony. Great. That's active. But what if Tony has Hemophilia so his blood doesn't clot? (This is a BIG cat apparently.) Suddenly the fact he was acted upon and bitten is a lot more important.

"Tony was bitten by the cat" puts the emphasis on Tony and his state.

4. To avoid revealing responsibility.

The most common example of this is, "Mistakes were made." Great. Who made the mistakes? We don't know. That's the point.

HOWEVER, this shouldn't be your approach for concealing contextual information from the reader. If you are regularly doing this to try to conceal who is doing what in a scene or story, you are probably writing false tension by being vague. That's not good.

But you can use it effectively to imply or communicate indirectly. 

5. Stylistic flow

Imagine writing a paragraph about a ball. Sometimes you want to use passive voice to keep the flow of the passage or to help transition into a new passage more smoothly. We just spent several sentences talking about a ball, so writing "The ball was kicked" flows better than pulling in an actor we haven't been focusing on.

Passive voice has now been explained to you. ;)

Is it really such a bad thing? Not if you use it sparingly and for the right situations.


  1. What can make identifying passive voice tricky is not knowing the context of a sentence. For example, "The carpet was ruined" is passive voice if you are referring to an action that ruined the carpet. If "ruined" is being used as a predicate adjective to describe the state of the carpet, such as "the carpet is purple" or the "carpet is stained," then the sentence is considered active voice since the subject is "being" something. Now it's true that this sentence structure is considered rather passive and best avoided, but it is still active voice, something my daughter's high school English teacher could never wrap her head around.

    1. Hey Ken! I'm so glad you brought this up. There are definitely some finer points of passive voice. I did want to talk more about them in this post, but alas, health was not on my side last weekend. Maybe another day. Thanks!


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