1. theEnglishMage
    Offline

    theEnglishMage New Member

    Joined:
    Dec 25, 2016
    Messages:
    3
    Likes Received:
    0

    When to use the active and passive voices.

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by theEnglishMage, Dec 29, 2016.

    In my creative writing classes in college, I was told to use the active voice exclusively or most of the time. I find that it's hard to do, but I can see the improvement to the work. As I work with the active voice, I found that I can't, or shouldn't, use it exclusively. Also I am reading East of Eden, and Steinbeck uses a fair amount of the passive voice, and can still create great images. My question is when is it best to use which voice? Thanks!!
     
  2. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    19,244
    Likes Received:
    10,517
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    There is no single answer to this other than at the time best suited to each. Writing is not black and white. One cannot say use it here, but not here.

    I use the passive voice when I want to intone the actor-less-ness that this syntax imposes. If two people are at odds and neither wishes to give in and I want to portray the idea that no one wants to take responsibility for fixing whatever is wrong between them, I might say something like, they could not make amends, that door was closed. That's a cheesy, melodramatic example, but I would use the passive there to show that no one was taking responsibility for the mess because passive voice has no grammatical subject (actor).
     
  3. izzybot
    Offline

    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 3, 2015
    Messages:
    918
    Likes Received:
    1,004
    Location:
    SC, USA
    As with most things when it comes to writing, there's no hard and fast rule. Active is generally more engaging and it's a good general rule to use it more often, but you might have a style that uses passive more frequently to great effect or a story that's better told largely in passive. Personally, I like using passive voice to show an emotional distance from the events - I like being in my characters' heads and passive voice can indicate a recalcitrance to process or believe ("his body was scored by bullets" as opposed to "bullets scored his body"). That's just me though.
     
    Malisky and Wreybies like this.
  4. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    19,244
    Likes Received:
    10,517
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    Exactly. Perfectly stated. It's about knowing what each form brings to the table and using it to its best effect, using it purposefully, knowingly, with intent.
     
  5. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    9,195
    Likes Received:
    5,710
    Whenever these questions come up, I find myself strongly doubting that we're really talking about passive voice, because people VERY rarely naturally use passive voice.

    Can you offer a few examples of what you are classifying as passive voice?
     
    izzybot likes this.
  6. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    9,195
    Likes Received:
    5,710
    Actually, I don't see this as passive voice, I see it as an adjective. The oak door. The green door. The shabby door. The closed door. That door was oak. That door was green. That door was shabby. That door was closed.
     
    Rosacrvx likes this.
  7. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    9,195
    Likes Received:
    5,710
    Similarly, though less confidently, I'm not sure that this is passive voice either. It's not that much unlike, "His face was smeared with lipstick." The "by" versus "with" do suggest that the bullet phrasing is technically passive voice, but I don't see it as truly functioning as passive voice. Instead, I see "scored by bullets" as a phrase that is serving as an adjective.

    I Google "adjectival phrase" and find this example (at http://examples.yourdictionary.com/adjective-phrase-examples.html), in which the words in italics are regarded as an adjective phrase.

    A tapestry beautifully stitched by hand is worth the cost.
     
    izzybot likes this.
  8. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    19,244
    Likes Received:
    10,517
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    The past participle is a verb serving as adjective. It's still defo passive voice. I know what you mean, what you're describing to me, but if I said the door was opened, there's no argument. In the case of the verb close, the past particle and the true adjective are one and the same form. You can't say the door was close, that makes no sense. With open, we get two forms, open (adj.) and opened (past part.) so we get a clear syntax, the door was open vs the door was opened.

    ETA: Were I to extend the syntax a bit and say the door was closed by me, now we clearly see a past participle. I probably could have used a better example where the adj. and past part. aren't one and the same, I do admit.
     
    Catrin Lewis and izzybot like this.
  9. Lea`Brooks
    Offline

    Lea`Brooks Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 11, 2013
    Messages:
    2,707
    Likes Received:
    1,792
    Location:
    Virginia, United States
    I accidentally misread "shabby," and I was wondering for the longest time why someone would have a shaggy door...
     
    Skye Walker likes this.
  10. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    9,195
    Likes Received:
    5,710
    So--tell me if I'm misunderstanding you--it's ambiguous. "Closed" could be a verb in that sentence, in which case it's passive voice, or an adjective, in which case it isn't.

    By default, I definitely read it as an adjective. When I picture the metaphorical door, I don't visualize it in motion, being closed by an unknown entity--verb--I visualize it as being in the continuing state of closed, just as it's in a continuing state of being made of oak--adjective. So I don't read any passive voice in that sentence. I realize that if you as the author intended it as passive voice, you win, but that's not how I read the sentence out of context.
     
    Wreybies likes this.
  11. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    19,244
    Likes Received:
    10,517
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    Yes; hence, I added an ETA above to that effect. ;)

     
    ChickenFreak likes this.
  12. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    19,244
    Likes Received:
    10,517
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    I will add, though, that past participles have a habit of migrating away from their original uses. They can become adjectival, such as in closed or stitched, and they can become nouns in certain pat phrases like the accused may now rise or the injured were taken to hospital. It's something I deal with all the time in translation because Spanish allows almost any past participle that can logically stand in place of the thing it is describing to be used as a stand-alone noun. In English the wiggle room is much, much less. It happens, but you can't do it with just any old past participle. Regardless, the source is a past participle and the syntax, when it becomes an adjective, is still also clearly sourced from the passive voice syntax, as one sees when we simply add by me to any of the adjectival examples.

    </pedantic woolgathering> :-D
     
    ChickenFreak likes this.
  13. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    9,195
    Likes Received:
    5,710
    I'm still hoping that the original poster can offer some examples of passive voice. Because it's quite likely that his/her issue could be resolved by discovering that they're not passive voice at all. :)
     
    Catrin Lewis and izzybot like this.
  14. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    19,244
    Likes Received:
    10,517
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    I agree with you here. We've all seen the red herring that's often made of the word was.
     
  15. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,786
    Likes Received:
    4,895
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    This is the main problem with questions regarding the active vs. the passive: Too few people actually know what these words mean; what these voices are. We run into the same issue when people ask about show vs. tell. The questions are only meaningful if we agree on what the terms mean.

    Talking about writing is almost as difficult as doing the writing itself. :meh: o_O
     
    Rosacrvx and izzybot like this.
  16. Catrin Lewis
    Offline

    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2014
    Messages:
    1,768
    Likes Received:
    1,155
    Location:
    Pennsylvania
    Actually, yeah, the phrase is an example of passive voice. Remember the "by zombies" litmus test: "The door was closed by zombies." Yeah, it works. Passive voice. OTOH, "The door was oak by zombies"? Nope.

    "Closed" isn't in and of itself an adjective. It operates as one in "the closed door," being the past participial form of the verb "to close." But that's not the same as "The door was closed."

    EDIT: I see @Wreybies has ably dealt with this above. Or, this has been ably dealt with above by @Wreybies. So I'm just tagging along.
     
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2016
    Wreybies and Spencer1990 like this.
  17. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    9,195
    Likes Received:
    5,710
    Actually, "closed" is also an adjective. The same word can serve either purpose, and therefore the "closed" example was ambiguous.

    The door was closed. (ambiguous--adjective OR verb)
    The door was oak. (adjective)
    The door was open. (adjective)

    The door was closed by zombies. (works because we assume the verb meaning)
    The door was oak by zombies. (fails because adjective)
    The door was open by zombies. (fails because adjective)

    The last only works if it's "the door was opened by zombies". But as Wreybies pointed out, "closed" doesn't have an unambiguous distinction between the adjective and the verb. The only way to tell whether "the door was closed" is passive voice is context.
     
  18. Simpson17866
    Offline

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2013
    Messages:
    1,896
    Likes Received:
    1,394
    Derp
     
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2016
    izzybot likes this.
  19. izzybot
    Offline

    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 3, 2015
    Messages:
    918
    Likes Received:
    1,004
    Location:
    SC, USA
    ... by zombies. Agressive voice only, please, zombies.
     
    BayView and Catrin Lewis like this.
  20. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,966
    Likes Received:
    7,521
    Location:
    Scotland
    No, that's not true at all. Passive voice exists for a reason. Learn when and when not to use it. Here's a very good article on the subject.

    http://www.biomedicaleditor.com/passive-voice.html
     
    OJB and DueNorth like this.
  21. big soft moose
    Online

    big soft moose Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 1, 2016
    Messages:
    1,957
    Likes Received:
    1,419
    Location:
    Driving a tractuur in ciduur countree
    I sometimes use passive in scene setting - "the night was nearly silent, broken only the lonely hooting of a distant owl, and the faint crunch of boots on snow" I know it could be written in active but as with show vs tell its a real arse to active everything (or show everything).

    That said I would move to active once the action kicked off - it would, imo, be a mistake to write the whole scene in passive
     
  22. Simpson17866
    Offline

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2013
    Messages:
    1,896
    Likes Received:
    1,394
    So it turns out that "passive voice should never be used" was not actually written in the passive voice :dead:

    I need to start drinking coffee in the morning
     
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2016
    jannert likes this.
  23. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    19,244
    Likes Received:
    10,517
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    This is an example where I too would use passive voice. The actor-less-ness of the mood is part and parcel. I will add, for the sake of clarity, that your example doesn't become passive voice until the word broken. The first clause, the night was nearly silent, alone, is categorical, which is something other than either passive or active voice, but the lack of knowing this third option is, at least in part, one of the reasons I feel causes much confusion when people assume any instance of was to be a red flag for passive voice. You didn't say anything to make me believe you don't know this; I'm just taking the opportunity to segue this bit of info in. ;)
     
  24. big soft moose
    Online

    big soft moose Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 1, 2016
    Messages:
    1,957
    Likes Received:
    1,419
    Location:
    Driving a tractuur in ciduur countree
    James Clavell opens King Rat with a prologue which is all in passive voice, and an info dump (introducing the layout of Changi POW camp) but it works despite breaking three supposed rules.

    In particular I remember the line "these men were criminals. Their crime was vast. They had fought a war, and they had lost"
     
  25. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    19,244
    Likes Received:
    10,517
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    Which is why, despite deeply held and engrained writerly need to hold on to the word rule, I refuse to use it because it just doesn't make sense. It's like trying to describe a mammal, but the only words you get to use are the ones that describe a fish. A few things fit, but too many don't. Clavel isn't breaking any rules; he's displaying deft understanding of the tools at his disposal.

    Sorry. I love you, Moosie. I just don't like the word rule. ;)
     
    Simpson17866 likes this.

Share This Page