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Passive voice

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Lisselle, May 15, 2017.

  1. Lisselle

    Lisselle Minstrel

    Passive voice is my nemesis. I have no true innate understanding of it, regardless of the research I do.
    Is it ok to use passive voice when characters are talking, for example, if they are talking/ thinking of past experiences?

    I bought an editing program and it shows I use passive voice where I shouldn't, yet I'm more confused than ever!

  2. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    The passive voice is really just an inversion of the regular sentence order.

    So normally, a sentence is:
    <Subject> <verb> <object> (E.g. John kicks the ball.)
    In passive voice, it's:
    <object> <verb> <subject> (E.g. The ball is kicked by John.)

    So whether people are talking, and whether or not you're referring to the past, present or future, won't affect the use of passive voice (e.g. you could say "the ball was kicked by John" or "John kicked the ball").

    You'll note that passive voice is generally more wordy and often flows less nicely. It is, however, useful when the object of the sentence is the important part, or if you don't want to mention the subject (or it is implicit).
    E.g. John was audited. <object> <verb>
    You could rewrite that as: John was audited by the IRS. <object> <verb> <subject> But in many cases, this is unnecessary.

    So, generally people warn against using passive voice because it can tend to lend to weaker writing etc. You can generally recognise passive voice by the use of the "to be" verb combined with another verb that takes an object (or looking for the "by" + object at the end of a sentence).

    I can expand some more on this, but it might be helpful to hear what parts are tripping you up. E.g. recognising passive voice, writing in passive voice, subject/object identification, etc.
    Last edited: May 15, 2017
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  3. Lisselle

    Lisselle Minstrel

    I bought 'Pro Writing Aid', and it shows a lot of instances of passive voice in my writing. I copied and pasted an extract of The Lord of the Rings, and while the program picked up many issues, (ha!) there were NO instances of passive voice.

    For example, in a story I just submitted in the Challenge forum, this line...

    "The Wall had not always been there, and the City was once known by another name."

    "was once known-" is being highlighted as passive voice, and I truly do not understand. It is my big writers block. I don't naturally SEE passive voice. I'm worried it will be a major issue in the development of my writing.
  4. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    I don't think you need to worry about that particular instance.

    So, we could rewrite that (the second part of the sentence) into active voice by introducing a subject.
    So, e.g. "they once knew the City by another name." But that kind of sentence flows better with an implicit subject, so I'd leave it in passive voice.

    Really, the "no passive voice" rule is the same as the "no adverb" rule. Apply as needed. A lot of times, you'll use passive voice because it works better. So I'm guessing that you don't have a problem with passive voice unless you're seeing a lot of it being marked out.

    So as an additional example, here's a bit of text:
    The sword was picked up by John. It was heavy in his hand. The burglar was attacked with a grunt.
    The two of them fought for a couple of minutes before the clouds were swept out of the moon's way by the wind, and the warriors were revealed to each other by the light.

    So, we can rewrite that into active voice:
    John picked up the sword. It was heavy in his hand. He attacked the burglar with a grunt.
    The two of them fought for a couple of minutes before the wind swept the clouds out of the moon's way, and the light revealed the two warriors to each other.

    Personally, I find the passive voice (i.e. the top one) harder to read (and write, really).

    So, in short, I think you're fine. I hope this at least partly answers your questions?
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  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Sometimes people will use the passive voice when trying to prevaricate through omission: "In the confusion of the melee, Count Drisi was struck down" could mean the speaker did the dirty deed but doesn't want his conversation partner to know that.

    Alternatively, when the facts are not known, such an omission might reflect that fact. "Highness, the villages of Brugal and Semiton have been destroyed!" Who did the destruction? The speaker may not have a clue; i.e., it's a mystery.

    But perhaps the speaker knows who destroyed those villages because the kingdom's already been at war with a known party. Naming that enemy may be entirely unimportant (it's a given), and what's more important is the object + verb, i.e., the effect or changed set of circumstances.

    Basically, any time the subject needs to be deemphasized, whether to prevaricate or naturally because it is unknown or relatively unimportant, passive voice in dialogue might be quite natural for the speaker.

    If you are using a first person narrator, that narrator may also slip into passive voice for one reason or another. Similarly, an omniscient 3rd person storyteller type of narrator might do the same. Heck, probably any narrative voice could do so; it's fine outside dialogue if used conscientiously. I think that maybe the problem is that passive voice used at the wrong time and haphazardly can lead to an unintentional weakening of some passages and, if used too much, confuses the reader's experience of cause and effect in narrative.
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  6. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    If I might add to my previous post:
    The sentence it marked out is "and the City was once known by another name". You can tell that this is in passive voice by looking closely at how it's constructed.

    So, the verb in the sentence is "was known". Ask yourself, who is doing the knowing? It's not the City. The "by another name" seems (probably to a computer) to be the subject, but you know that it isn't. So, since there are no other nouns left, it means that the subject is implied. And passive voice is the only proper sentence type where you can do that. Ergo, the sentence is in passive voice.

    And if you look at "The ball is kicked by John", you can follow the same formula. Kick is the verb. Who is doing the kicking? Not the ball, so it has to be John. Ergo, John is the subject. And if the subject is after a verb in a sentence, it means that the sentence is in passive voice.

    Edit: Also, ditto everything Fifth said.
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  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    The use of passive voice for prevarication is one of the most interesting for me personally. Throw the listener off the track of the cause; blame some other unnamed entity.

    Perhaps the most common use: I was taught....

    "I was taught to respect my elders."

    "I was taught 'eye for eye.' "

    "I was taught to never give up, never give in."

    "I was taught to fight against bullies."

    "I was taught to turn the other cheek."

    –Sometimes, this also includes an appeal to authority, with a vague, unnamed, or commonly accepted authority being cloaked as cause. Even so, any of these statements when used can be taken as an attempt to throw the listener off the trail of primary cause of any action. (E.g., a man gets horribly beaten, almost dies, and the perpetrator says, "I was always taught to stand up to bullies," heh. As if, it's not all his fault; he wasn't the primary cause of this beating–no matter the obvious facts on the ground.)

    The prevarication may be so natural or instinctive, the prevaricator may not realize he's prevaricating. The things we hide from ourselves.


    On another note...

    Someone in an older thread mentioned that if you can add something like "by ogres" after the verb, that's a sign it's in passive voice. The City was once known by another name by ogres.

    This idea of cause and effect as it relates to passive voice also interests me.

    Not too long ago, I started a thread looking at Mary Kowal's idea of The Four Principles of Puppetry. The first principle was focus:

    1. Focus. "Focus indicates thought. As a writer, you can only show the audience one thing at a time. Show them what you want them to think about."

    Sometimes, leaving off the "by..." phrase leads to a lack of focus. I haven't looked at the original context for the "City was once known by another name" phrase. But reading it, my mind might naturally wander to and wonder about who, known by whom, rather than staying focused on whatever is the main point of that section of the story. This sort of thing might be one of the reasons passive voice is thought (by ogres?) to weaken writing.

    In a way, every cause-effect is a story. If you give an effect, some reader might start wondering at the cause and might even wonder about the relationship of cause to effect, i.e., the how and why of it. Why was the City once known by another name. Who knew it by that other name. What caused the change of names. –very interesting chains of events might be involved in this transition. Some great story might lie behind that City's name.

    So, a more mundane example. "Darvis had been taught to always avoid attention, never stand out as anyone special." Ok, so maybe his teacher, a master thief or assassin, taught him this. Or maybe his crazy, abusive parents taught him this. Maybe he learned this from bullies at school. There's a story behind it, and a reader's mind might leap there even if you are in the process of showing something else here and now.
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  9. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I think this is a great example, of a different sort, of how passive voice can ruin a reader's experience of cause-effect and by so doing, ruin focus.

    This reminds me of a previous discussion about MRUs, motivation-reaction units.

    Maybe being "in the moment" means experiencing causes first, effects next. We experience unfolding circumstances. This is like seeing an active agent that will be a cause for an effect. (The sword is in a picked-up state after the agent, John, acts. He's created that effect.) So...

    "The sword was picked up" is the effect, "by John" names the cause of that sword's state after the fact. Using the passive voice is like forcing the reader's focus to jump back and forth in time, seeing the effects first then leaping back to find the active agent that is the cause of those effects. Doing this multiple times within a short time frame is a lot of leaping back and forth, and the reader's fluid experience of cause-effect is broken, he's knocked out of the moment. By ogres, presumably.
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  10. pmmg

    pmmg Auror


    I just read your story and I saw nothing wrong with your voice. I would suggest trusting yourself more and this program less. You write very well already.

    Which BTW, is not to discount all the posts above. The lessons above are still worth following.
    Last edited: May 15, 2017
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  11. Lisselle

    Lisselle Minstrel

    Thank you! I have felt so demoralized about this for a while now.

    Today I'm going to take notes on everything all of you have said, and see if I can start to make some sense of this issue.

    In Australia when I was young the Aus Government and board of Ed took Grammar OUT of the curriculum, so as a very young child I wasn't taught verbs, adverbs etc. It's been an adult endeavor, but for a long time none of it came naturally.

    It's great to have passive voice explained by writers.
  12. elemtilas

    elemtilas Inkling

    The passive voice, along with the active and the middle, is one of three distinct voices that an English verb can form. Grammatically speaking, it all comes down the roles of the Agent (the doer of the deed) and the Patient (the one that got done the deed).

    In the active voice, the Agent is the doer of the action and will be in the nominative case; the Patient is the experiencer of the action and will be in the oblique case; the Recipient is the one for whose benefit the Agent does the action upon the Patient:

    Liselle wrote a story involving a city for the Mythic Scribes. Normal word order in English declarative sentences is AVPR --- Agent-Verb-Patient-Recipient. We don't mark case (apart from possessive), so you can't tell apart from word order who is doing what. If we use pronouns, all things become more clear:

    SHE wrote IT for THEM.

    "She" is the third person singular feminine nominative personal pronoun; "it" is third person singular inanimate oblique personal pronoun; "them" is third person plural animate oblique/dative personal pronoun.

    If I had written "Her wrote him for they" you'd probably wonder at which grade I dropped out of school!

    In the middle voice, the Agent and Recipient are identical:

    Liselle wrote her(self) a story involving a city.
    SHE wrote HER(self) a story.

    With the passive voice, the roles remain the same, but the Agent becomes demoted to object status while the Patient (what was the object before) is now Promoted to subject status. The word order now is SVO --- Subject-Verb-Object, but the subject of the verb is not the Agent and the object of the verb is not the Patient. That word order remains PVA:

    A story about a city was written by Liselle for the Mythic Scribes.
    IT was written by HER for THEM.

    The best way to see the passive voice is to look at the verb. Whenever you see a form of BE in conjunction with a present participle (WRITING) or past participle (WRITTEN); you can be pretty certain that the passive voice is lurking in the shadows. Also, be on the lookout for sentences that begin with what appears to be the logical Patient of a verb (the thing the action is done to). Stories don't write people (usually). People write stories. That inversion of Agent and Patient is another very strong clue.

    So that sentence you wrote, "The Wall had not always been there, and the City was once known by another name." Yeah, the first clause is active voice: it is Subject-Verb by word order and the BE + ___ing / ___ed isn't there. The second clause is definitely passive voice: it is SVO, but also PV(A) --- "the city" can not be the Agent of the verb know. The Agent is left undisclosed, but the structure is classic passive voice:

    The City was known by another name by those undisclosed people. "The City" is the subject of the verb and also the Patient; "was known" is the third person preterite singular passive voice; "by another name" is an instrumental construct (call it instrumental of manner --- it's the manner in which the City was known); "by those undisclosed people" is the object of the verb and also the Agent.

    Use pronouns to clear things up:

    IT was known by another name by THEM.

    Put it in active voice:

    Those undisclosed people knew the city by another name. "Those undisclosed people" now clearly become both Agent & subject of the verb; the City becomes Patent and object. Here, you're repromoting the Agent to subject status and redemoting the Patient to object status; change their places in the sentence & change the case and hey presto! Passive becomes Active!

    I hope you won't continue feeling demoralised! It is important to know and understand how to work in all these voices to write well!

    o_O !!?? They took Grammar OUT of the curriculum? (No wonder it's so hard to understand an Aussie when he talks!!! ;))) )

    Sigh. And I thought the American education system had gone off the hook...

    Hope the above helps!
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  13. Lisselle

    Lisselle Minstrel

    Thank you. I have to work so hard to really 'see' the passive voice.

    Grammar has been reinstated in our schools, thankfully! However I am sure there are a generation or two who are still hindered by the absence of it.

    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk Pro
  14. Rkcapps

    Rkcapps Sage

    I too use Prowritingaid but there comes a point where you do need to trust your voice and ignore a computer program. Great advice above!
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  15. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Let me just say that you need to throw out the idea that passive voice is bad. As FifthView said above, the passive voice can be used as a way to hide information or give a false impression. This would be considered bad in RL (by most people) but is a positive boon in fiction. Other than that, there is literally nothing objectively wrong with passive voice.

    Someone else above said that using passive voice is considered "weaker" writing. But the truth is that this is entirely a matter of taste and education. We are taught in school (and by "experts" on the internet) that passive voice = weak writing and so we start to believe it. We might develop a taste for "active" writing over "passive" writing as a result. But it's still, in most circumstances, an aesthetic choice.

    Consider that one of the most famous sentences ever written in the English language is written in passive voice. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." Do you hear that sentence and think "ew passive writing"? If you I suppose you may want to avoid passive voice because it is not personally pleasing to your ear. However if you hear that sentence and are moved by its beauty, as I am, then you should bring passive voice back into your writing toolbox.

    Like literally every single element of writing and storytelling it can be used well or used badly. But you don't blame the language structure for bad writing, you blame the writer who didn't use it well!
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  16. Russ

    Russ Istar

    There is some great stuff above, so I will try not to repeat any of it, just add a little to it.

    It is nearly impossible to write an entire novel without using the passive voice. The question for you, for your work, is how much of it i is necessary to achieve what you want to accomplish with your work. I would suggest that you don't try to avoid all uses of it, but rather to minimize its appearance.

    As with almost all advice here, a lot of it turn on what your writing goals are. If your goal is to be bought by a traditional publisher, most acquiring editors frown upon much use of the passive voice. It you use it much it can reduce your chances of selling. While it is interesting to look at historical examples, tastes and styles of fiction are changing. In current commercial usage, passive voice is considered a weakness if not used sparingly and carefully.

    I also urge caution when using software to tell you when you are using too much passive voice, or other stylistic choices in your writing. You need to learn these rules for yourself and apply them with your own discretion. I think one needs to be very cautious to avoid software becoming a bit of a crutch. Of the professional writers who are friends of mine, none of them use this kind of software.
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  17. elemtilas

    elemtilas Inkling

    Just to pick the weeest of gnits here, the verb BE can't really be active or passive (or middle). It's a verb of state. The above would be called "active" voice, though, since it's not passive in form. Usagewise, the above is a straight appositive, meaning that "it" is equivalent to and formally identified as "the best of times". And "the worst of times". Apposition is where one person or thing is said to be equal to or the same as something or someone else.

    There are plenty examples of great sentences in passive voice, though! "Rome was not built in a day" - "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" - "What is done can not be undone".

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  18. that's because passive voice is weaker writing. It is generlly confusing and unclear as to who is doing what. I work in a profession where passive voice abounds. Reading the documents I need to read is a nightmare some days because of it. It is boring, dull, and confusing. I generally subscribe to the belief that passive voice should be eschewed unless necessary for either style or story reasons. This is a fairly strong presumption. I still pass into passive from time to time but I find my writing is stronger and has more punch when I write with active voice. The actors and actions are far more clear.

    So, OP, I suggest you take the advice as a presumption against passive voice that should be followed unless there is a compelling reason to use passive voice.
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  19. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I think that a modern preference for immediacy, being in the moment, drawn into the story naturally leads to a preference for active voice in narrative. [Edit: Also, intimacy, or experiencing the world as the POV character experiences it.]

    You hear this sort of thing all the time:

    "I was driving down Highway 35 when an oncoming car swerved into my lane."

    Cars don't have agency, at least not of the human sort; but in the heat of the moment, they sure seem to have agency of their own. Some more moments will pass before we think of the cause, the real human agent behind the wheel, and curse him or her.

    If you are traversing through a forest jovially conversing with your mates, you might have occasion to think, "At that moment, an arrow hissed past my ear and embedded itself into a tree not three steps before me." The arrow seems to have agency of its own; in the next moment, you are turning around to find the true agent or lunging for cover to hide from the true agent, heh.

    Writing "At that moment, an arrow was fired past my ear" or some variation would be weird, weak, and sap the immediacy of the situation for a reader.
    Last edited: May 16, 2017
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  20. goldhawk

    goldhawk Troubadour

    In this case, the computer was wrong. Grammar correcting software often thinks all cases of "to be" are in the passive voice. They have a long, long way to go to match a good editor.
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