Feb 21 2012

Using Passive Voice Is Not Wrong

Posted by Mathias in Form and Style, Good Stuff

Ok, time to vent on a pet peeve of mine; people who claim that using the passive voice in writing is wrong. It is not wrong. In fact there is nothing grammatically wrong with writing in the passive voice. Yet I just had another encounter with another author, unpublished of course, who swears that the passive voice is grammatically incorrect.

What is the passive voice? Passive voice is when the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence. For example, saying “Why was the paper written on by you?” is perfectly grammatically correct but is passive in its voice. The paper is being acted on and also where one expects the subject to be. One would expect the question to be asked, “Why did you write on the paper.”

The two sentences however have the same meaning. But the first is slightly more advanced, potentially leading to someone with a lower reading level being confused by it. That’s ok though. And here is why. Because repetitive, predictable sentence structure in prose is boring. I have read enough of it. And a lot of it exists in so called “Best Sellers” that numb my brain with robotic English.

I am here however to say that it is ok to throw in a couple passive sentences as long as they are not overly clumsy. Of course, writing too much in the passive voice can indeed be awkward. If half of your sentences are passive people are not going to like that. But if you judiciously make 3% or so (that’s just 3 out of every 100) sentences in the passive voice, it breaks up the inevitable monotony of your structure. By being smart about when you use the passive voice, a reader probably will not even recognize that you have pulled such a sentence out of your bag of tricks.

Most successful fiction authors seem to have their passive voice sentences down to a very low number. But they do not eliminate them. Remember all this next time someone tells you such a sentence is “wrong”.

2 Responses to “Using Passive Voice Is Not Wrong”

  1. XerXes Xu Says:

    The passive voice is not wrong in the sense of ungrammatical, but it may be a commercial error. I accept the advice that readers prefer the active, and I use the passive sparingly, only when it is demanded, or when it aids euphony.
    Similarly, we are advised to remove unnecessary words. Prose written predominantly in the active voice, with no unnecessary words, is lean, lucid and easy to read. These are fundamental technical qualities of commercial writing.

  2. P A Cat Says:

    XerXes Xu Says: “Prose written predominantly in the active voice, with no unnecessary words, is lean, lucid and easy to read.”

    I disagree with this statement. Active voice can be difficult to read if the sentence is poorly constructed. This is true even if it is grammatically correct. I would also say that your statement is only true if you append the qualifier of, “for people with low reading skills”. Properly constructed passive voice sentences are no harder to read than active voice sentences.

    Also, not using unnecessary words tends to make stories sound like technical documents. The whole concept of showing is built upon the use of unecessary words. This is a prime tenant of story telling.

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