Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Grammar Brigade: Passive for a Point

Passive voice... dreaded, depised, cursed and crushed.  Every "was," "is," and "will be" eliminated with a quick stroke of an active verb.  We all know the drill.

But is it time to retire the drill?

The passive voice exists for a reason.  And, done well, it can have a big impact.

What is the passive voice?  The word "was" does not necessarily mean passive - so no more snipping out statements like, "It was true." and "Helen's hair was blue."  That's not passive voice.  Simply put, passive voice is when something happens to someone, instead of that someone doing something.

For example:
"Jeff was mugged by a troll."  This is passive voice.  The person to whom the action happened, Jeff, comes first in the sentence, and the actor, the troll, is at the end.
"A troll mugged Jeff."  This is active.  The actor is the subject of the sentence.

Which is better?  Well, if I'm trying to start a genocide against all trolls, I'd choose the latter.  But if I'm trying to stress the fact that Jeff had a bad day, I'd go with the former.

The passive voice takes stress off the person/thing doing the action, and puts it on the victim of the sentence.  So, if you've got a multiverse where trolls are just another denizen, you're tempting racism by putting the troll first.  What's important is that poor Jeff got mugged.  It could just have easily been a moody human, a fire fae, or a jabberwocky that mugged him - as long as the police arrest the guy, who cares?

But let's say that all trolls are vile creatures of death, darkness, and evil.  A TROLL mugged Jeff?  Is that how he got that black eye?  DEATH TO ALL TROLLS!  The important thing is that the mugger was a troll - it's not like Jeff got drunk and wandered down a back alley somewhere.  No one really cares about Jeff, anyway.  We just want to kill to trolls.  And that's where active voice comes in - it emphasizes the doer of the action.

So when else is passive useful in a story?

Pass the blame - Do you have a villain?  Are they trying to blame the victim?  Your evil characters will try to avoid accepting blame by using the passive voice.  "She was stabbed by a knife," the sociopath said.  Well, who stabbed her?  He did, of course.  But he doesn't want to accept that responsibility. 

Taking control - There's a character - a young boy - who doesn't have much control over his life.  Things just... happen to him.  He is moved to a small town by his parents.  He was told to wash the dishes.  And then - he left.  He chose to become a fireman.  He took control of his life.  Use a little passive voice (but don't go overboard) in the beginning.  This sets up a contrast to who he becomes later.

Losing control - She's kick-butt.  She's got a squad of alpha men at her beck and call, and she's taken down ten terrorist cells in the last month.  And then - she walks into a classroom full of kids, where her hands are taken and she's dragged into the center of the room by midgets.  Her hands are filled with a book, and all the eyes in the room stare at her expectantly.  The passive voice shows that she's out of her element, no longer sure where she's going and what she's doing.

Where else would you use passive voice?

Thanks to Amy Corwin, for a fantastic presentation on the passive voice!


  1. Nice post!
    Active vs. passive is weird in science... European journals prefer everything to be passive, American journals prefer everything to be active... The hard part is not switching back and forth in an attempt to avoid making all the sentences in your Materials and Methods start with "I" while still acknowledging that it was you who did it.

  2. Thanks! We did remark on that, actually. Scientific papers tend to prefer the passive voice, because it puts the focus on the experiment and not the scientist - thus, the results are important. Eliminating the scientist from the writing removes visible bias.

    I did not realize, however, that American papers liked active voice. That's very interesting.