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When to use the active and passive voices.

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

  1. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But that's not passive.
     
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  2. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Agreed. Blue is categorical. Red is active.
     
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  3. BayView

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think that's passive voice...

    ETA: Oooh, a TRIPLE cross-post! I have outdone myself.
     
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  4. big soft moose

    big soft moose Contributing Member

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    Good point :D the rest of the prologue is mostly in categorical or passive though

    I thought "these men were criminals" would be passive - but I'm not daft enough to argue with a professional translator about these issues.
     
  5. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But are you sure? This is my main point about passive voice--most of what people say is passive voice, isn't. I struggle to imagine a paragraph that is mostly passive. Passive voice just isn't very natural.

    Try that zombies test:

    These men were eaten.
    These men were eaten by zombies.
    These men were promoted.
    These men were promoted by zombies.


    That all works.

    These men were criminals.
    These men were criminals by zombies.


    That doesn't work. Not passive.

    Passive requires a verb, and it requires that the subject of the sentence be ACTED ON by the verb instead of ACTING with the verb.

    The dog ate. (The dog is the subject. The dog is acting on something. This is active. And "The dog ate by zombies" doesn't work.)
    The dog was fed. (The dog is the subject. Someone is acting on the dog, by feeding it. This is passive. "The dog was fed by zombies." works.)
    The dog groomed himself. (Active.)
    The dog was brushed by the groomer. (Passive.)

    But what about all those "was"es? My examples above imply that "was=passive" is correct. It's not:

    John was being chased by a pack of dogs. (John is the subject. John is being acted on by the dogs. Passive.)
    John was running at high speed. (John is the subject. John is the one acting. Active.)
    John was promoted. (Passive.)
    John was working his way up the corporate ladder. (Active.)
    John was cooking dinner. (Active.)
    John was staring at me, one eyebrow lifted, Spocklike. (Active.)
    Jane and John were raking leaves in the front yard. (Active.)


    That's assuming that there is a verb other than the "was". When "was" is used to glue the subject to an adjective or a noun, there is absolutely no passive.

    The house was green.
    The house was a mansion.
    John was fast.
    John was a runner.
    John was a zombie magnet.
     
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  6. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yay Amazon preview! I was able to read the prologue. Very little of it is in passive voice.

    This was the only passive voice that I could find:

    "the road was crossed by a tangle of barbed gates"
    "walls made from plaited coconut fronds roughy nailed to posts, and thatch roofs also made from coconot fronds"
    "every year a new layer was added, or should have been added"
    "they were set on concrete stilts"


    I know that there's a ton of "was" and "were" in the rest of the prologue, but it's not passive voice. (It's always possible that I missed a few other instances of passive, but I also saw tons of was/were that isn't passive.)

    Edited to add: I'm torn about the "walls made from" and so on. That is passive? "made from blah" isn't just a long adjective phrase? It somehow feels like a very different thing from "the dog was fed".
     
  7. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I would caveat this by saying logical subject, not just subject, which I realize is splitting hairs, but this conversation does always seem to come down to the fine points. A passive voice construction has a logical subject, but no grammatical subject. The logical subject of a passive voice construction is, in fact, a grammatical object. A categorical statement has a grammatical subject but no object.
     
  8. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks! My failure to know that reflects the fact that my knowledge of grammar comes primarily from reading hundreds and hundreds of books, and very little from actually being taught anything. :) Subject-verb-object, in sentences where they were in exactly that order, is as far as my school bothered to go.

    I should really read a book on grammar.
     
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  9. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'm with you on the study of grammar. I got most of mine by osmosis, both during and after my schooling was over—and I have a BA in English. I picked up my grammar from reading books all my life. Voracious reading.

    I struggle to come up with a 'rule' to fit every grammatical situation. I have a friend here in Scotland who is 11 years older than me. Man! She can quote every rule regarding grammar. I feel kind of foolish about it all, most of the time. I instinctively know what's right and what's not, most of the time anyway. But can I tell you why, or quote the rule, or even correctly identify complex parts of speech? Can I hell.
     
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  10. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    You're welcome. ;) To be honest, when I tackle this with my interpreter brain instead of my writer brain - as I am wont to do - I am actually amazed that people do end up understanding this concept because, frankly, the English language doesn't help out in this matter. English is unusual amongst the I.E. languages in that its passive voice construction contains some strong illogic.

    Example:

    I know for a fact that the definition of passive voice is simply a clause that contains an object and a past participle acting upon that object, but no grammatical subject. But here's the problem: In English, the only nouns that switch forms depending on parts of speech are the pronouns, right? Right. So these are the words in English that best show us the difference between subject (nominative case) and object (accusative, instrumental, dative, etc.)

    I ate a sandwich.

    In the above active voice sentence I is the subject and is in its correct subject (nominative) form. Easy peasy. But...

    I was fired from my job.

    Problematic construction!!! That's a clean passive voice statement. No argument there. But the object, I, is not in its object form, Me.

    Me despidieron de mi trabajo.

    In Spanish, the same passive voice construction does place the logical subject, Yo, into its object form, Me (pronounced meh, not mee). Things line up. It works. Logic prevails!

    What the dizzel, English???
     
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  11. BayView

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't know formal grammar either.

    I don't think it's an issue as a writer--my grammar is good, even if I don't know the right names for the tools I'm using.

    It's mostly limiting when it comes to talking about writing, rather than writing itself.
     
  12. big soft moose

    big soft moose Contributing Member

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    I think I've suffered from thinking that telling was passive whereas showing was active, so the whole prologue of king rat is a big telling session with no showing, so in my head that made it passive.

    So if we take something like "there was a row of huts made of bamboo and roofed in palm , officers lived in these huts" I had that down as passive because we are just being told about the huts and officers living there, hes not showing the officers or showing them experiencing the conditions.

    Wheras you're saying "there was a row of bamboo huts roofed in palm" is categorical (although the by zombies test suggests passive), while officers lived in these huts is active because lived is the active verb (wheras if it said officers were housed in these huts that would be passive... right ? )

    Sigh I should have paid more attention at school... rather focusing on the fact that our English teacher was a hot 25 with these big ... ahem.. textbooks....and many of us wanted to conjugate with her rather than conjugating our verbs.
     
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  13. Solar

    Solar Contributing Member Contributor

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    lol Transubstantiation
     
  14. big soft moose

    big soft moose Contributing Member

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    Its because historically speaking Aenglish is a Germanic language (also heavily influenced by Danish and Celtic influences), bastardised by forced combination with Latin and Norman French.

    Then particularly with American English you add all the other influences and you've got a giant horrible melting pot of a language completely lacking logic (as in through, though, plough, thought, and tough)
     
  15. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Show vs. Tell is another paradigm that suffers from trying to categorize everything into one or the other. Some things are simply neither (like a dialogue tag) and it ceases to even exist as a concept when you take things down to small snippets or words. It's a concept made of larger structures.

    Blue is categorical and red is active. The roofed part that is perhaps looking like it could take by zombies to hail it as passive is, in my opinion and in agreement with @ChickenFreak 's examples part of a complete adjectival phrase, roofed in palm. It describes the state of being a palm roof, not the action of roofing the roof with palm leaves.

    Yep.

    None of this stuff came to me in my standard education. It wasn't until I trained to be an interpreter that I was made to learn these things because Russian, the language I learned at DLI, is an inflected language. Grammatical cases for all parts of speech that change the spellings of nouns and adjectives depending on what they are doing in the sentence. Our instructors were well aware that most of us would be starting class with a paucity of grammatical knowledge, so that's where we started. You can't make someone understand the dative case in Russian by telling them it most often flags the indirect object if the person doesn't know what an indirect object is. And many students did not know. o_O
     
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  16. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    As soon as you start quoting rules for grammar in the English language, you get clobbered with tons and tons of exceptions to the rule. I am constantly amazed at how in hell people learn English as a second language. Many of us struggle to learn it as a first language.
     
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  17. Moe1795

    Moe1795 Member

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    Every writer ive talked with or read on the subject cannot say enough bad things about using the passive voice. Luckily I wasnt much for using it even before I was aware of its existence. I think I will use a character that only talks in the passive voice, or a character will be used whose voice is on the passive mode.
     
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  18. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    A substantial percentage of those that teach terror of passive voice couldn't recognize passive voice if it bit them.
     
  19. Jaiden

    Jaiden Member

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    Genuinely never been thrown into a passive/active discussion before and whilst I am fascinated, I am also utterly utterly befuddled. Can the 'by zombies' example be used for everything* to establish whether a sentence is passive?

    *For everything, read: a select few examples most commonly encountered as with all english grammar situations. i.e: I before e.
     
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  20. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, sometimes the "by whatever" is already in the sentence, such as:

    The dog was fed by the vet.

    But when the entity performing the action communicated by the verb isn't present, I think that the "by zombies" test usually works. And in the above, you can obviously replace the vet with the zombies. If you can't find a way to add zombies, or find anything to replace with zombies, there's a fair chance that there's no passive voice. IMO.
     
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  21. Foxxx

    Foxxx The Debonair Supporter

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    That's good enough for me.

    If knowing a little trick or "almost-rule" (as in, a rule with a few exceptions) can help correct me 9/10 times, instead of my 5/10 times, that's more than enough.

    The 1/10 times I miss something, hopefully a beta reader, or an editor will pick up on. Otherwise, the average reader probably won't even notice.
     
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2016
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  22. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Similar can be said for most of the major languages in use today. Spanish (Castellano) is famously the Latin daughter who ran off with a smoldering, swarthy Arabian prince and never looked back. Spanish is chockablock with Arabic words, many of which are so unchanged that they are perfectly understandable to Arabic speaking people, and unusual amongst the Romance Languages, Spanish allows for a sort of flip-flop of syntax structures that, when you compare to both Latin and Arabic, the flip is the typical Latin syntax and the flop is the typical Arabic syntax.

    It seems she also had a torrid affair with a Celtic fellow because outside the extant Celtic Languages, Spanish has one of the largest batteries of Celtic words and word roots found in any modern language.
     
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  23. BayView

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, just to break your record of every writer, here's a writer saying there's a time and a place for passive voice. When the action is more important than the actor, passive voice works well.

    John Smith stood up to them; the next morning his body was found on the courthouse steps.​

    has more style than:

    John Smith stood up to them; the next morning the caretaker found his body on the courthouse steps.
    In this example, it's the body being found that's important, not the identity of the person who found it, so there's no point adding unnecessary details that get in the way. Passive voice, used appropriately, is useful.
     
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  24. Cogito

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Passive voice isn't horrible. It serves a purpose, or it would not be part of the language.

    Active voice is stronger. It clearly indicates who performed the action, and the active verb is not diluted by the auxiliary verb. Therefore, it is usually a better choice.

    So when is passive voice better? Look at what I wrote above. First off, if you don't know who performed an action, or don't wish to reveal it, you cany either use an indefinite pronoun or you can use passive voice:

    Someone murdered Dr. Stone.

    Dr. Stone was murdered.

    By omitting the subject entirely, the passive voice puts a stronger emphasis on the action. In the same way, the writer can remove the implication of there even being an actor for a action, perhaps making a vital clue hide in plain sight.

    Also, because passive voice is weaker, you can de-emphasize the action relative to other actions in the same scene through the use of passive voice.

    A writer chooses his or her tools deliberately. The choice of passive voice is a finishing tool, for fine tuning the contours and texture of your scenes.
     
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  25. Villion_

    Villion_ Member

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    The desirability of avoiding passive voice as often as you can was most strongly emphasized.
     

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