I bet almost everyone has been scolded for using passive voice, either by a teacher, a writing buddy, or an editor. Software designed to help you improve your writing, like Grammarly or Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check, often flags text as “passive voice” and encourages you to revise.
Great! Who doesn’t want to be a better writer?
The problem is that passive voice is misunderstood. So what do you need to know?
Basic sentence structure:
Noun (person, place, thing, idea) + Verb (action word)
Subject (noun) + Predicate (verb)
Active voice is when the subject is acting:
The flamingo danced around the stage in high-stepping circles.
Passive voice is when the subject is acted upon:
The flamingo was danced around the stage in high-stepping circles by the puppeteer.
The context and my understanding of the scene completely changes based on these examples. In the active voice example, I’m guessing the flamingo is onstage at a zoo or a wildlife exhibit, or that this is a kids’ picture book about dancing flamingos. In the passive voice example, I realize the dancing flamingo is a puppet being manipulated by someone else.
Passive voice is about the author’s voice! That elusive, hard-to-define element that makes every writer unique.
Is it okay to use passive voice?
Absolutely. Just use it carefully and with intention. If you’re using passive voice without any awareness of doing so, then there are probably better ways to construct your sentences. Consider:
Where do you want to focus the reader’s attention? On the subject or on what is being done to the subject?
For example, if the puppeteer is torturing that poor flamingo, maybe you want to focus on the torture itself, which means you should write the scene in passive voice.
If, on the other hand, you want to focus on the flamingo’s reactions to the torture, then use active voice.
Another instance when you may want to consider passive voice is if you have a character whose arc has a major shift from viewing themselves as a victim to accepting their own agency and taking decisive action. This character’s opening scenes could be written in passive voice to showcase their victimhood, and over time, the scenes shift to active voice to mimic the character’s change.
Programs that flag “passive voice” sometimes get it wrong. “To be” verbs (is, am, was, were) are not passive verbs. Also, helping verbs are actually about tenses and not voice, a different issue altogether. Review what is flagged, and make decisions carefully about whether to follow the suggested revision.