"A Cold Vehicle for the Marvellous": writing a story for J Sheridan Le Fanu
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What is passive voice, and why are you told to avoid it?

There seems to be confusion between the actual grammar of active and passive voice, and prose that's accused of being "passive". So, let's start with the bare facts. When the action - the verb - of a sentence is being performed by the subject of the sentence, the sentence is in active voice. This kind of subject + verb + object construction is the basic building block of English.

  • Anne chases the cat.
  • The dog bit Ben.

Here, the action is being done by the subject of the sentence: "Anne chases" and "The dog bit". When the action is being done to the subject of the sentence, by something else, then the sentence is in passive voice.

  • The cat is chased by Anne.
  • Ben was bitten by the dog.

The sentence expresses exactly the same meaning, and order is still subject + verb + what's called the agent: but now the subject is the thing suffering the verb: the cat, and Ben. It's the agent - Anne, the dog - who is doing the verb. 

N.B.: Talking of which, you'll have noticed that, to make a passive voice sentence, the verb becomes a verb phrase, with the auxiliary verb (the little extra one) usually being a form of "to be": is chasedwas bitten, would have been bitten, shall be chased. Notice, though, that in informal expressions "to get" also figures:

  • She would have got promoted last week.
  • I get beaten at tennis.

One crucial difference between active and passive makes more sense if you remember that a sentence isn't a grammatically complete sentence unless it has a subject and a verb: Chases the cat and Bit Ben are not complete sentences. But in passive voice you can leave out the thing doing the verb, because it's not the grammatical subject, and still have a complete sentence:

  • The cat is chased.
  • Ben was bitten

In other words, as with those examples, in passive voice constructions an agent need not be specified, and this is one of the most important reasons for using it: the agent is unknown, or not relevant, or something non-specific.

  • I was blindfolded and pushed into the cellar.
  • The car can't be driven, and the weekend has been ruined.
  • It is believed that order has been restored in Paris and the Estates General will be summoned next week.
  • Water was added to the test-tube and the solution was heated to boiling point.
  • Had the catch been landed on the quay, it would have been sold much more quickly.
  • It was decided that all the Borough's playgrounds should be closed and the money allocated to the Council's hospitality fund.

N.B.: Notice how in sentences with more than one verb phrase, you can often leave the auxiliary verb out of the second one, and even the subject, if the structure of the two halves is similar enough to clue the reader into what the full verb phrase would be:

  • was blindfolded and I was pushed into the cellar.
  • ...the Borough's playgrounds should be closed and the money should be allocated...

would be very clunky. Even if the subject of the two phrases is different, you can drop the auxiliary verb if it's repeated, and they're fairly close together so you can trust the reader to sense the omitted one. The result is much more fluent:

  • Water was added to the test-tube and the solution heated to boiling point.
  • ...the Borough's playgrounds should be closed and the money allocated...

But notice how the motive for leaving out the agent, in something like It was decided that all the Borough's playgrounds should be closed, may not be admirable. Who took the decision? If no one did, then no one can lose votes.

And that's the clue to one creative reason for using passive voice in a sentence: it may have exactly the same meaning, but it has a different tone and feel. The subject of the sentence is often our representative in the experience the story, and here they're suffering the verb, not doing it. There may be an agent, but they're not the subject of the sentence in either the grammatical, or the ordinary sense. And there may be no agent: nothing and no one is actually acting at all.

One of the best reasons for suggesting caution with passive voice constructions is that sentences tend to come out a bit longer and more complex: they seem more formal, and they may be slower to read. It's true, too, that they may make things seem more general and less specific, because of the absence of an agent.

Sometimes you want to slow the reader down, but usually storytelling is a business of character-in-action, so most of the time you want the subject to be the active element, and you want to be specific. This is at the heart of why a lot of writing teachers have a lot of good reasons for saying "Try the active voice" to a lot of beginners. You usually don't want to say

  • Jane was angered. The wardrobe door was slammed. 

We need to know who slammed the door, of course. Plus, although "was angered" is not a true passive voice construction (it's a "semi-passive", see below), it is "telling", when her slamming the door would "show" her anger. More subtly, it means that for a moment Jane-in-action is wiped out of the story. Instead, active-voice verbs will keep the character as the act-or in the events you're trying to evoke:

  • Jane got up and slammed the wardrobe door.

I think we know she's angry, don't we?

But sometimes you do want to use passive voice verbs. For one thing, there are the moments when you actually want to evoke the voice of a selfish, blame-dodging Local Councillor, or a traditionally-trained scientist. But also, sometimes, it's a crucial part of how the storytelling works:

  • Hundreds were killed.
  • That day the family was horrified by everything.  
  • John was seized from behind, flung down on the rug, then massaged into a blissful stupor.
  • The wardrobe door had been slammed, and the mirror had unquestionably been broken by something, but by what? No one would say.

Another virtue of passive voice is that it can help to make the sentence more fluent. In

  • The cat is chased by Anne, teased by Joe and worshipped by the baby.

each verb has a different agent, but the cat can stay as the subject because we're in passive voice. What's more, you can keep things swift and focused by not repeating "the cat is", and  because the three phrases have the same subject and the same construction, you don't even need an "it" to represent the cat. 

  • Anne chases the cat, Joe teases it and the baby worships it.

is in active voice, and much more stop-start-y, because the three separate subject + verb phrases in the active voice version makes for three finite clauses. And the focus on the cat is diluted, as it gets tucked away as an object, and represented by a mere pronoun it, at the end of each phrase. The focuse, pattern and rhythm of the two versions are all very different: which way would be right for your sentence in your scene?

Then there's the way passive voice may enable you to get the main verb earlier in the sentence, and, by getting the verb in early, it'll also help you to steer clear of the pitfalls of front-loading and dangling modifiers.

  • Active voice: A combination of clever training, hard work, natural talent, and a sprinkling of good luck which no one could have bargained for, has rewarded Carol with a gold medal.

Here, the subject + active verb is A combination ... has rewarded, but the subject and its verb have a great wodge of phrases between them. And only after that do we get the direct object "Carol" - who is really what the sentence is about - and only right at the end do we discover the indirect object that Carol has been rewarded with: a gold medal

  • Passive voice: Carol has been rewarded with a gold medal thanks to a combination of clever training, hard work, natural talent, and a sprinkling of good luck which no one could have bargained for.

Here the passive voice version works much more clearly and forcefully: we know immediately that Carol has been rewarded with a medal, and then the detail of all the reasons for her success makes sense. What's more, because we read the details knowing already why they matter, a little bit of tension builds in us as we approach the next one - what more helped Carol? - until we end with the sparkle of the extra good luck. As David Crystal discusses in his wonderful Making Sense of Grammar English is naturally end-weighted.

These are all reasons why the narrower-minded and stupider would-be pundits of creative writing who tell you to avoid passive voice are wrong. Like all the other things you're told to avoid, sometimes the very particular advantages and effects are exactly what you need. Sometimes they're the last thing you want.

You decide

Mind you, using passive voice and then leaving out the agent can also get you into trouble. This, from the San Francisco Chronicle site via the World Wide Words blog, is grammatically correct:

  • When deputies arrived, they found a man down in the backyard and he was determined to be deceased.

But oops! The reason for that delightful disaster is that the police wrote a passive voice version of the police's action - "was determined by the attending officers to be deceased". But because they took for granted who did the determining, so left them out, we read it as a description not of the officers' action, but the dead man (as in something like, "I am determined not to drink too much".)

Then there's the semi-passive. These are constructions where the verb is behaving like an adjective (for more, see Have You Heard the One About "Was"). They don't really have an agent, though we might understand one from the context. So

  • Judith is angered by grammar. is a true passive voice construction because it can be reversed to make an active voice one: Grammar angers Judith.

Whereas 

  • Judith is angered. and Judith is very interested.

are semi-passives: they use is, but they can't be flipped into active voice, as a proper passive can. They're behaving much more as adjectives, in a similar way to

  • Judith is angry. ... or
  • Judith is very tall. 

Finally, since passive voice is such a useful tool, may I suggest that you don't use "passive" more loosely, as some of those stupider would-be pundits do: a catch-all term for flat, impersonal, distant, un-engaged, un-dramatic, clichéd writing? Those are just some of the alternative insults, and they're all more useful and less ambiguous than "passive".

In my grumpier moments I'd say that calling something "passive" is lazy, because you're not making yourself think properly about what's wrong with it: if you want to improve as a writer, you should get into the habit of putting in the tiny, extra bit of work to decide which of those very different faults you actually mean. 

And to make the point, I'm going to finish with some examples which use some similar verbs, and may not be the most active way to express something, but are not grammatically passive constructions:

  • He will be scarlet, confused, overheated and beautifully dressed.
  • Bouncer was hysterically delighted to see them.
  • Dismayed to see Bouncer, he cowered behind his wife.
  • The house is at the centre of the storm and the family have hidden themselves in the cellar.
  • Be the house what it may, it will not trouble us.
  • Surgery was successful, and the patient recovered well.
  • It was 1856 and a large man stepped out of a doorway into a snowstorm. (More here.)
  • The house is standing in a flat field and the flowers straggling over the porch are un-watered.
  • Overhead, an enemy plane had been dragging, drumming slowly round in the pool of night, drawing up bursts of gunfire - nosing, pausing, turning ... (More here.)

 

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