Passive vs Active Sentences

Disclaimer: I am not an English professor. These are notes I’ve gathered on passive voice and dissected to a level I can understand. Maybe they will help you, too.

 

Recently, my editor told me to rework a scene because I had written too much of it passively I wrote it in the passive. Gah! Gripping the term “passive voice” may have been the most frustrating part of writing. The term “passive voice” was hard for me to grip. After all, the passive voice puts emphasis on an action, yet it slows the action (pace). Huh? How can something emphasizing action slow it down?

 

What is a passive sentence?

A passive sentence focuses on action instead of the subject. It usually contains the subject + some form of “to be” (such as: is, are, was, were, am, be, been, being) + a past participle (often ending in “ed”).

Example: He had exorcised the demons.

The demons are the subject, yet the focus is on the action. (Some guy removed those demon things.)

 

What is an active sentence?

An active sentence focuses on the subject.

Example: The demons were exorcised.

The demons are both the subject and the focal point. (Their butts were kicked out!)

 

Why we are told to “kill the passive”.

For the most part, killing the passive makes sense. Passive writing can be bulky and pace killing.

Passive Example: A song is being written by Paul.

Kind of trips you up, no? Also, when I hear this, I figure Paul is off somewhere and will get to that song at his convenience.

Active Example: Paul is writing a song.

We just used only used four words instead of seven. Also, the sentence has more impact because Paul is actively writing—maybe even right in front of us.

 

Setting tone via active or passive versions of a sentence.

The following examples show how using the active versus the passive can affect a scene’s tone.
Example: My puppet was stolen.

The focus is on the act of stealing. [Note:1) the use of “to be” (was) 2) the use of a past participle.]

Example: Someone stole my puppet.

The focus is on the subject.

 

How do these sound to you when read without additional context? This is how I hear them:

My puppet was stolen. = Yeah, someone took it. Whatever.

Someone stole my puppet. = Someone stole my puppet! Help!

Notice how the passive version feels like someone is giving you an FYI, you know, passively, whereas the active one could be shouted as the act happens?

 

Consider this scene:

“Bob, why are you late for class?”

“Someone stole my puppet.”

 

Doesn’t this sound like a “The dog ate my homework.” moment?

 

Now consider this:

“Bob, why are you late for class?”

“My puppet was stolen.”

 

This is now an “Oh no! Poor Bob!” moment.

 

So while it is often best to cut the passive and thus pick up the pace, passive sentences have a time and a place.

 

Examples of Passive versus Active. (Warning, some of these may make your brain hurt.)

 

Active: Paul writes a song.

Passive: A song is written by Paul.

 

Active: Paul wrote a song.

Passive: A song was written by Paul.

 

Active: Paul has written a song.

Passive: A song was written by Paul.

 

Active: Paul will write a song.

Passive: A song will be written by Paul.

 

Active: Paul can write a song.

Passive: A song can be written by Paul.

 

Active: Paul wrote a song for me.

Passive: A song was written for me by Paul.

Passive: I was written a song by Paul.

 

Paul is a busy guy!