Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Actively Passive

David from Vancouver sent in the following question. I belong to a writers’ group and keep hearing that writers shouldn’t use the passive voice, but no one can tell me why. What’s wrong with the passive voice and why is it such a taboo?

Because new writers tend to overuse the passive voice, many writing teachers advise their students not to use it. This has resulted in lots of confusion, with people condemning usage of the passive voice without really even knowing what it is – or recognising it when it’s used. However, there is definitely a place for it in modern writing, so it seems a shame that it has become such a taboo.

The passive voice differs from the active voice because it places the emphasis on the result of an action or on the receiver of an action, rather than on the action itself. This is appropriate in cases where the person carrying out the action is unknown, unimportant or anonymous.

A knife was thrown into the room and it hit Jane. This is passive voice. A knife was thrown into the room by John and it hit Jane, is also passive voice, even though we now know that John is the knife-throwing nutter who Jane should most probably have ditched years before.

However, John threw a knife into the room and it hit Jane, is active voice.

Active voice is more immediate and makes it easier to visualise the action. Too many sentences in the passive voice make a written passage wordy and dull and you should limit your use of it, but that doesn’t mean it should never be used. It is particularly useful when you don’t want to let on who has said or done something.

Jane was told John was dangerous. This is passive voice because we have no idea who told Jane she should duck when John turned up with sharp objects. Jane was told by George that John was dangerous, is also passive voice. On the other hand, George told Jane John was dangerous, is active voice.

Either way, Jane should run and John needs to get help with his anger issues.

Lorraine Mace, co-author of The Writer's ABC Checklist, runs Flash 500, a quarterly flash fiction competition.

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