Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Passive vs. Active Sentences by Lisa Ramsay

Many spellcheckers will flag any passive sentence and suggest that you might want to change it into an active one, but there can be good reasons to write in the passive voice. Knowing when you should take the advice of your spellchecker, and when you should keep your passive sentences, can help you to make the right editing decisions.

Active Sentences

Active sentences in English usually follow the conventional sequence of Subject-Verb-Object. The agent performing the action is introduced, the action being performed is described, and then the object being acted upon is named. In some cases, the object will be replaced with an adverb, describing the action, or a complement, which completes the description of the action without being a true object, as in the following examples.

  • Active sentence with object: The fox jumped over the dog.
  • Active sentence with adverb: The fox jumped quickly.
  • Active sentence with complement: The fox jumped up.

Active sentences tend to be simple, concise and clear. They are about someone who is doing something. It will be obvious who or what is performing the action described by the verb, since the agent performing the action will also be the subject of the sentence. In these examples, it is the fox that is jumping.

Passive Sentences

Passive sentences focus on an action that is being performed, or on the object affected by that action, rather than on who is doing the action. The object who is being acted upon becomes the subject of the sentence, so that the action is being described from their perspective, as in the following examples.

  • The dog was jumped over.
  • The dog is being jumped over.
  • The dog was jumped over, by the fox.

The agent performing the action may appear in an extra phrase, tacked on to the main clause, but it is not an essential part of the sentence. Passive sentences can easily become awkward and confusing, when too many clauses are tacked on, or it is unclear who the agent is that is performing the action. It is this lack of clarity, together with the less than stimulating nature of passages that overuse the passive voice, that make people and spellcheckers believe that active sentences are better than passive ones.

Choosing the Right Voice

Active voice is often used for the sake of clarity and brevity. It can be used to hold the reader's interest, to create a faster pace, and to ensure that fictional characters appear more active. However, the simplicity of active sentences can be reminiscent of the types of sentences given to children who are just starting to learn to read for themselves, and a passage that overuses the active voice can become just as monotonous as one that relies solely on the passive voice.

Whatever spellchecking programs may believe, the passive voice does have its place, and when used well it does not have to result in a loss of clarity. Cutting out repeated references to an agent can even help to create a more concise, faster paced and varied passage. The identification of the agent may be delayed for dramatic effect, or simply unnecessary once it has been established in earlier sentences. The agent can also be cut out of the sentence when it is the action itself, or the object of the action, that is important. In a story about a long-suffering dog troubled by a pesky fox, we might want to describe how the dog was being jumped over again, rather than focusing on the fox's perspective. As long as a passive sentence does not confuse the reader, and it is creating the right effect, it is no worse than an active sentence, and it can even be better.

Passive sentences can make effective rhetorical tools. They can be used to avoid taking responsibility for an action, or attributing blame, by removing any indication of who actually performed the action. In defense of a chicken thief, we might write "The dog was jumped over at the door of the coop," focusing on the guard dog's failure, and drawing attention away from the guilty fox. Passive sentences can also be used to create a sense of objectivity, particularly in academic and scientific writing. The scientist does not intrude into the work by writing "I measured the speed of the jumping fox," but rather suggests that "The speed of the jumping fox was measured."

The passive voice is often confused with the past tense, perhaps because of the idea that we can only look back passively at events that have already happened. Although passive sentences typically involve the use of the past participle, modified by "be" auxiliary verbs, the passive voice is not restricted to any particular tense. These auxiliary verbs can modify the tense to which the past participle applies, for example by determining whether the dog was being jumped over in the past, or is still being jumped over right now. Examples of both active and passive sentences can be found for all sorts of tenses, and it is worth looking at some of these to understand how both types of sentences can be used in all manner of situations. It is little wonder that writers work so hard to keep times and dates in order, and avoid mixing tenses, particularly when they are writing fictional pieces that flash forward and back in time, but understanding how to use different tenses effectively is not the same as understanding how to use active and passive sentences.

Switching Voices

Once you understand the difference between active and passive sentences, it is easy to see how you can change one into the other, simply by identifying the agent performing the action and introducing them or eliminating them as the subject of the sentence. The active sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" and the passive sentence "The lazy dog is jumped over by the quick brown fox" can be switched to make a piece work better. Just make sure that you are choosing your voice for the right reasons, and not because a spellchecking program has told you to be more active.


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