1. Unchained
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    Unchained New Member

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    Passive vs Active Voice

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Unchained, Jul 1, 2012.

    Hi guys, my current English teacher, whom I despise and hold no respect towards for a number of reasons, constantly critiques my writing (mostly essay writing, not any fiction or anything) as always being in passive voice. In terms of how I write my sentences, I think what he says is true. I have a general idea of the differences between the two, mainly that the active voice is more direct and generally more preferred in most cases. However, I'd like to have a clear and simple explanation of the two and how I can go about removing this life-long habit of writing in passive.

    I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with passive voice, but I want to be able to distinguish between the two and also be able to write in both styles by choice, not just routinely writing in passive voice for everything.

    So, what is the difference between active and passive voice?
    How can I determine whether I am writing in the style of one or the other?
    How do I go about writing in active voice? In other words, what should I be thinking when I write sentences, so that I'm writing with an active voice?
     
  2. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    The subject of the sentence is doing the action in the sentence.
    EX: John fed the dog. This is active voice.
    The dog was fed by John. This is passive. Note it requires more words for the same idea.

    If you're adding a lot of helping verbs and prepositions, you might be using too much passive voice.
     
  3. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    all you have to do is google 'active vs passive voice' and all your questions will be answered...
     
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  4. lasm
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    lasm Member

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    Chicagoliz's examples are good. To add a little more grammatical explanation (I teach grammar):
    John fed the dog
    subject verb object

    Passive voice is when you make the object of a verb into the subject of the sentence. Often this means you leave out exactly who performed the action, which can be confusing. You also give the impression that you're writing about things that are just sitting around waiting for fate to strike them (passively), rather than people who are making decisions or acting purposefully (actively). Occasionally that's appropriate or useful (when you want to convey a lack of agency, or want the subject to be unclear) but mostly it's bad style.

    Less clear situations could include things like:
    This sentence was written in the passive voice.
    The treaty was ratified in 1859.

    Be kind to your English teacher, the job ain't easy. :)
     
  5. Estrade
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    Estrade Member

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    "The passive voice" is a grammar term which applies to a sentence like this:

    John was eaten by the giant fish.

    where the purpose of the sentence is to show a subject, (John) and the way something has acted upon him (a fish, eating him).

    as opposed to:

    The giant fish ate John.

    where the purpose of the sentence is to show a subject, (a fish) and the way that fish has acted ( eating John).

    Those are the passive voice and the active voice. A sentence like that will always be "in" one of those voices. If you use the passive voice too much, it can deaden your writing, but the passive voice is in itself a perfectly good way to phrase something. (Grammatically speaking. And even in terms of style, it takes more than one or two sentences in the passive to indicate bad style, in my opinion.)

    When a writer revises their work they usually reduce the amount of passive voice. On the other hand, some people talk as if every sentence in the passive voice should be changed unquestioningly into the active, which is going too far.

    (There is also an argument about passivity in writing which centres around the overuse "was" and words ending in -ing, but that's not about "the passive voice" - but it's something that gets confused with it sometimes.)
     
  6. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    I don't think I need to explain the difference between the voices any further, but actually passive voice is quite useful when it comes to writing school and college related essays, thesis and so on. Usually such works require detach tones and many times the subject is not known/not important.
     
  7. Shane Grayson
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    Shane Grayson Member

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    A little trick for spotting active voice: see if there is a "was" in the sentence. It's not a perfect method, but it helps.
     
  8. Complex
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    Complex Senior Member

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    Anything scientific almost requires passive voice to clearly state the exact circumstances of who is doing what, when, why, how and what were the results. I much rather see 'the dog was fed by John' versus 'John fed the dog' because the subject of focus is probably 'the dog' and not 'John', active voice wants to put the 'actor' out in front rather then 'the subject of the action'. In most cases you want the power of your words to be concise and understandable, since it paints a better picture in the readers head. However, sometimes focusing on a key subject while events involving it are also unique.

    Passive voice is a good way to relay information without changing viewpoint. 'John was eaten by the giant fish!' is a good way to describe someone watching John. If you have 'The giant fish ate John!' you are focusing on the fish rather then John. If you have been writing everything in passive and you suddenly switch to active, then it could throw the reader off. Such as 'John liked to swim; as did I. We used to swim together, down at the lake. Until John was eaten by a giant fish.' Though this is narration from a character, it still serves to focus on the subject as 'John' even though it is passive and even if 'a giant fish ate John' is active, it completely distorts the flow of the prose.

    So yeah, active is good in general, but it is not the sign of a bad writer. After all, I much rather read about a horrific tale being recounted by the narrator in the passive voice. Knowing your focus is more important then going by simple definitions of 'passive or active' when your scene requires its effect.
     
  9. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Usually if there's a "was + verb" in the sentence - was done, was given, was told etc
    And if the verb is in its 3rd form, though I have no idea what this form is called. What I mean is this:
    - Go, Went, Gone
    - Give, Gave, Given

    When it's in passive, inevitably the verb takes on the third form, eg. I was given a cat

    At least that's what I think anyway... someone correct me if I'm wrong. I usually just write... ¬_¬
     
  10. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    "Was" can be a way to _start_ looking for passive voice, but don't take that to the point of thinking that "was" is bad. It's just a clue, not bad on its own, and so many people develop a fear of the word that I rather dislike it as a clue. They start fearing things like

    "His hair was a mess."
    or
    "Two years later, she was still working the same job."

    which are not passive voice at all. If I were to twist those examples to be passive voice, they'd be

    "Two years later, the same job was still being worked by her."
    and... er... you really can't change that one without completely rewriting it, perhaps as
    "His hair was tousled by him."

    In fact, I might say that the "was.... by" combination is the clue to look for. If the "by" is there, or it's not there but you find yourself asking, "...by who?", then you may have passive voice.

    Can you offer some sample sentences that your English teacher didn't like? It's possible that your teacher, like so many people, doesn't actually recognize passive voice.
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i'm surprised that only 'was' is being mentioned as a clue, when fiction is not always written in past tense...so the presence of 'is' can also signal the use of passive voice... as in:

    The dog is being fed by John.
    vs
    John is feeding the dog.
     
  12. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, mammamaia, I was about to point out that same thing. There are a lot of "helper" verbs that one might find in passive writing. And they tend to be red flags. (had, is, was to name just three)
    "John 'had eaten' before they left." - "John ate before they left."
    "Mary 'was taken' to the doctor." - "Mary went to the doctor. "
    "The dog 'is fed' canned dogfood." - "David feeds the dog canned dogfood."
    Check your writing to see if you have a lot of compound verbs. This might be an indicator of passive structures and you might want to rethink the sentence(s).

    Such sentence structure slows down the action by taking the action away from the person or thing doing that action and putting on the recipient of that action. That is what makes it passive. The action tends to be secondary, incidental to the subject - the person/thing committing the action as opposed to the person/thing accepting the action.

    Now I am certain there are others who might explain this better so don't take this as the last word. But, it's a jumping off point.
     
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  13. AmyHolt
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    AmyHolt Contributing Member

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    Already several great examples of active/passive voice. On a similar topic - When trying to build a better stronger sentence I was given the advice to watch for 'ing' verbs.

    Sam is chopping the tree down.
    Sam chopped the tree down.

    The second sentence is stronger. Maybe even better yet would be to use a stronger verb like hacked or severed.
     
  14. Rob Pickard
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    Rob Pickard Member

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    This confused me a little, is that not just a difference in tense? How would one say "Sam is chopping the tree down." in present tense without the 'ing' verb?
     
  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Your other examples are good, but this isn't passive voice. John, the actor, is still doing the action, he's just doing it in the past perfect(?) tense. The passive version would be "John had been fed before they left."

    But this isn't passive versus active, it's present tense (present continuous?) versus past. There's nothing inherently wrong with present continuous tense.

    Edited to add: If you want to keep the present tense and avoid the 'ing' verb (not that I see anything particularly wrong with 'ing' vergs), you could make it "Sam chops the tree down." But that does have at least a slightly different meaning
     
  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oops. OK, I'm trying to remember to edit my previous post. Moving this post to that post and awaiting the deletion of this stub. :)
     
  17. AmyHolt
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    AmyHolt Contributing Member

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    You're right my post wasn't about active/ passive voice. I thought you and several others already did a great job explaining it so I comment on a similar subject. Maybe I didn't make that clear enough.

    There is nothing wrong with 'ing' verbs. I use them.

    Most stories are told in past tense so 'Sam chopped the tree down' is happening right then. By removing the 'is' you are forcing yourself to use stronger verbs. Strong verbs generally make your writing--well, stronger. :) I will never make a good English teacher, sorry if it's confusing.
     
  18. lasm
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    lasm Member

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    I think Chickenfreak is right, "is chopping" is present progressive and represents a continuing action, so you'd use it to describe a scene or an action that will be interrupted by another action. "Sam chops" is a single, discrete narrative event. Same as the difference between preterite/simple past and the past progressive. So if you say:
    "I walked to the store." This is the thing that happened.
    "I was walking to the store" implies that something more important happened during the walk.

    So in this case is/was is actually an auxiliary verb, you can't ditch it without changing your meaning.
     
  19. ithestargazer
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    ithestargazer Active Member

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    I like this example. I've always struggled with this and it's a good basic reference.
     
  20. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You've gotten pretty good examples so far, so I won't add to it, but I found this a bit weird:
    Where has your English teacher gotten his/her education? Has s/he ever written a paper in her/his life? Passive voice is important in research and quite popular in essays as well (though it seems to be less strict there), so I just feel like the teacher is messing with your head here. When writing an essay/paper, you are encouraged to distance yourself and give the floor to the subject matter at hand, and the passive voice helps with that.
     
  21. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    When I was a wee tike we had these little white hardcover Warner Grammar books in school. We diagrammed sentences endlessly. I hated it then; I'm so thankful now. I would kill to get my hands on a vintage copy today! :)

    This sentence was written in the passive voice.

    You can immediately remove in the passive voice as a suspect for grammatical subject of the sentence because it is a prepositional phrase, thus subordinate. It cannot be the grammatical subject. You are left with The sentence was written. Clearly passive. The same paradigm describes the second sentence.
     

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