01 September 2012

We need to act less passively

Lately, my thoughts have been dancing around passive voice versus active voice.

I’ve heard the mythological “rule” that says don’t write in passive voice. Note how I phrased that. I state this in such a way to show that it is more guideline than rule. The reason the guideline was created came from stories that ran over with passive voice with no noticeable movement within the words. So editors started chopping, and now it has become a “rule.”

Let’s look at why. I’ll start with an example sentence.

We were given a book.

In the context of normal grammar, this is a fine sentence. Subject followed by verb. Looking closer, though, we see an action problem. It conveys the passing of a book, but it has very little umph to it. So you got a book from someone. So what?

Let’s try a rewrite.

They slammed the book on our desk.

NOW! we have some more information. It works on many levels. The receiver had a desk. The book didn’t just change hands, it made its presence known. The giver was upset or the book was heavy. The reader can HEAR the book’s arrival. This was why they encouraged active voice instead of passive voice. You can convey a lot more information.

There will be times when passive voice is needed. Most people don’t speak in active voice. Natural diction will ask for both active and passive. Plus, use it to break up your structure a little. Variety for your spice of life.

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