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Passive Voice

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Thu Apr 07, 2011 7:52 pm
Ranger Hawk says...

I did a search for a topic on writing in a passive voice and how to avoid it, but couldn't find one, so I'm going to write one for future reference. Keep in mind, this is all rudimentary information and not to be relied on 100% for every circumstance.

First off, to understand the definition of a passive voice, let's brush up on our basic grammar. Subject and object -- remember those? What are they again?

- A subject is what the sentence is about.
Ex: The dog caught the ball.
Ask yourself what is this about. It's about the dog. Therefore, the dog is the subject of this sentence.

- An object is the thing receiving action from the verb.
Ex: The dog caught the ball.
First ask yourself what the verb (action) is. Caught. Good. Now, what is receiving that action? In other words, what is being caught? The ball. Hence, the ball is the object of this sentence.

Now that we've got those two terms defined, let's proceed.

So, what exactly is a passive voice?
A passive voice denotes the positioning of a subject in an object's place, and vice versa. To word it better, the subject becomes the thing that receives the action from the verb, while the object becomes what the sentence is about. They switch places, essentially.

Now, why is this bad? It's not completely bad, and you don't always have to correct it. However, in writing (and especially in writing novels/stories), it gives your piece a feeling of detachment. Instead of making the reader feel excited, worried, or otherwise immersed in the story, a passive voice can give an air of blasé about the piece. A sort of "ho-hum" attitude, if you will. And really, why would you want to write in a way that's just plain and dull when you could write it in a way that commands attention and interest?

How do I recognize it in my own writing?
A good way to find those passages written in a passive voice is to keep an eye out for those forms of "to be," such as "was, had, had been," etc. Once you spot one, odds are good that it could be in a passive tone.

Also ask yourself what the subject of the sentence should be. Then ask yourself whether that's really what the sentence is talking about. Let's apply this in the example below.

Ex: The car was wrecked by the boy.

Okay, so what's the subject? The boy. You might think at first that it's the car, since it comes first in the sentence and our natural inclination is to expect that to be the subject. But hold on! Let's press on and ask what the verb is. That'd be wrecked. What is getting wrecked? The car, not the boy (though he may, once his parents find out). So, according to our subject/object definitions, the car is the object. It's receiving the action of being wrecked. Hence, the boy must be our subject. Now, we've identified the problem with this passive piece. How do we fix it?

Writing actively.
All you really have to do is switch the order of the object and subject. Usually, in a sentence, the subject comes first, followed by the verb and the object receiving the action of that verb. Remember that when it comes to passive voice especially: Subject, verb, object. Now, granted, that's not how it's always going to be, but for a general rule, it's good to keep that order in mind.

Taking the sentence from above, we'll change it from this:
The car was wrecked by the boy.

To this:
The boy wrecked the car.

Wow! That sounds so much more exciting, doesn't it? Feels like it's happening in real time instead of a freeze frame! Let's just break that sentence down so we know exactly what it is.
The boy wrecked the car.

The boy is the subject.
Wrecked is the verb.
And that leaves the car as the object.

Hurrah! We've done it!

Bottom Line
If you're anything like me when it comes to learning grammar, you dozed off somewhere early up there and snapped awake once the end came in sight. So, let's lay out the basics to remember:

- A subject is what the sentence is about; an object is the thing receiving the action provided by the verb.
- In a passive voice, the subject and object swap places.
- To identify a passive passage, look for forms of "to be." Ask yourself what is receiving the action, what the sentence should be about, and whether the sentence actually reflects that.
- To remedy a passive voice, simply swap the subject and object and make any necessary grammatical changes so it will read well.

Voila! You're done!

For more information, check out this link about passive voice (I got some information from this site).
There are two kinds of folks who sit around thinking about how to kill people:
psychopaths and mystery writers.

I'm the kind that pays better.
~Rick Castle

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Wed May 18, 2011 3:47 pm
Matthews says...

Thanks for posting this!! This will help a ton, and you explained it well, so I could understand everything decently. I just hope I remember this tip... :P
Have I not commanded thee? Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed, for the lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.

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Fri Dec 02, 2011 2:14 pm
ArahAkachi1 says...

Thanks Ranger! I've had a lot of problems with passive voice and active voice. Your post on passive voice will help me with both my school essays and my novel writing. Once again, Thank you for your passive voice explanation.
Merci (Thank you)
Writing your name can lead to writing sentences. And then the next thing you'll be doing is writing paragraphs, and then books. And then you'll be in as much trouble as I am!

“Sorry about the blood in your mouth. I wish it was mine. I couldn't get the boy to kill me, but I wore his jacket for the longest time.”
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