Monday, June 18, 2012

Passive vs. Active Voice

Passive vs. Active Voice

English teachers like myself love to warn new writers against the evils of passive voice. Here at Daily Writing Tips, Michael has written about passive writing, and I recently wrote about dummy subjects, but it looks like there’s still some confusion about passive voice and its use.

For more on passive vs. active sentence construction, I turn to two books that should be staples in any writer’s library: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax.

First, let’s review what passive voice is. In most sentences, we have a subject performing an action. For example: Jason threw the ball. “Jason” is the subject.

In a passive sentence, the subject of the sentence is acted upon rather than performing the action, as in: The ball was thrown by Jason. “The ball” is the subject and it is being acted upon.

Verbs in the passive voice have two parts: some form of the verb “to be” and a past participle form of the action verb: was thrown. (The helping verbs has or have can also appear in a passive verb: the ball has been thrown.)

A writer may choose to use the passive voice in order to emphasize one thing over another. In the second example, the ball (rather than Jason) becomes the most important component of the sentence.

Zinsser says that passive voice should be used sparingly–only when there’s no way around it. “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style–in clarity and vigor–is the difference between life and death for a writer.”

In most (but not all) cases, the passive construction is longer, clunkier, and more vague. Take these examples from student research papers:

The poorer people were deprived of their opportunities.

Documents were cited to prove that an estimated 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants have been admitted to the United States.

Talks have been conducted on the subject of starting a worker program for the illegal immigrants.

In each of these examples, the passive voice construction gives us unnecessary words and clunky sentences that can be easily revised:

Harsh immigration laws deprive poorer people of opportunities.

State Department officials estimate the number of illegal immigrants at from 12 to 20 million.

President Bush has proposed starting a [guest] worker program for the illegal immigrants.

In part, the use of active voice over passive voice is a matter of word economy and simplicity. If you can say something with fewer words, you probably should. It’s also a matter of making your words work for you. As Zinsser says, “active verbs push hard and passive verbs tug fitfully.” Using an active verb helps make the sentence more vivid and precise; does your subject walk, or does he saunter? Does she fall, or does she stumble?

Hale warns against relying too heavily on is and are (and “to be” in all its forms):

Novices tend to rely on is and other static verbs and lose momentum by stumbling into the passive voice.

That said, you still have to be careful not to overdo it. Sometimes, passive voice is useful. Sometimes it’s even necessary. As commenter Bill G pointed out, the dummy subject it is necessary in describing weather phenomenon (it is raining). In Sin and Syntax, Hale gives us this example:

Writers and editors can get too literal-minded about “eschewing the stationary passive.” They forget that the passive voice does exist for a reason. One syntactically challenged slot editor at the Oakland Tribune, sticking adamantly to a policy demanding the active voice, changed the screaming, above-the-fold headline “I-580 killer convicted” to “Jury convicts I-580 killer” (which screamed less loudly, since the stretched-out phrase required a smaller type).

In Hale’s headline example, we can see that the sentence was better served by the passive construction. The action (the killer’s conviction) was more important than the subject of the sentence (the jury). The trick is knowing when to use active voice, and when passive voice is more effective. Many writers–especially beginners–rely too heavily on passive construction, allowing their prose to become limp and lazy. You can keep from falling into this trap by being conscious of your use of dummy subjects (it and there) and “be” verbs.

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