Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Why is Passive Voice Considered Taboo?

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by C. Patrick Schulze

Listen to a PODCAST of this article.

The answer to the title of this article is, it's not. Surprised? Passive voice is not evil, nor is it an error in WRITING. In fact, it's a legitimate and normal way to write. For example, did you know it's widely used in scientific writing?

Then why do "they" say we need to eliminate passive voice from our novel writing? It's because it's more difficult to read as it shifts verb and subject position within a sentence. It, therefore, reduces the clarity of your writing. That is, it's more difficult to tell who's doing what. Other reasons include people tend to remember active voice better and some have trouble with even understanding the sentence formation.

So, if we accept we should eliminate passive voice from our novel writing, let's first define passive voice so we can locate and eradicate it. Passive voice is a form of the verb, "to be" conjoined with a past participle. That's not much help, is it?

To break down that definition, let's review the forms of the verb, "to be." They are: are, was, am, been, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being. Simple enough.

The past participle, well, that's more difficult. One definition I found said it's a form of a verb that can function as an adjective, and is used with an auxiliary verb to indicate tense, aspect, or voice. Again, that's not much help.

Think of it like this. In a passive sentence, the subject receives the action. The secret here is to look for verbs that end in "-ed." If these verbs are preceded by a form of the verb, "to be," you often have passive voice. Exceptions exist to this "-ed" concept, but if you understand the "-ed" aspect to this, those exceptions will become easy to spot. Here are some examples of passive voice:

The shoes had been polished by John.
The problem was explained by Mary.

How do you fix passive voice?

To fix passive voice, just reword the sentence by eradicating the offensive words. Here are a couple examples.

Passive: The shoes had been polished by John

Active: John polished the shoes.

Passive: The problem was explained by Mary.

Active: Mary explained the problem.

In these simple examples, you see not only how to reword, but how changing the passive voice to active makes your writing more concise and easier to understand.

Is there ever a time when you do use Passive voice in fiction?

Sure. You use passive voice when you want to highlight the subject, if it's central to the story. Your example follows.

The murder weapon was stolen by John.

First, in this case, we have an exception to the "-ed" rule as this verb ends in "-en." No problem, the concept is the same.

However, in this example, I ask you to assume the theft by John is central to the story. Now, the passive voice, if used this once, would stand out to a reader and give the sentence more impact. Yes, it's a subtle technique, but under the pen of an accomplished writer, it works well to add emphasis.

You can also use the passive voice when you don't want people to know who did what. For example, in a detective story someone might say:

It's gone! The knife was stolen!

Remember passive voice is not the great evil it's portrayed. It's simply not the ideal use of the written word in most fiction, though it does have its place.

Are there times when you've employed passive voice on purpose? Why?

Until we speak again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, "Born to be Brothers"


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