Tittle Tuesday – Passive vs. Active Voice

I’m sure there’s more than one plant here – just don’t ask me to tell which is which

I’m going to write about Active voice vs. Passive voice today, mostly because this is something I keep getting yelled at by Word. (Yo! Office! There’s nothing wrong with the passive voice, quit telling me to change it!)

In addition to Office’s blue squiggles, it’s an old argument for writers. To make our writing interesting, we “should be using the active voice and not the passive voice.” (Or at least that’s the advice I was always given.) Which… is not always true, but as with all things, subjectivity rules.

First though, how can you tell the difference between the two? I’m not sure about you, but I honestly hated grammar when I was in school, all the way up through university. It took me a little longer to grasp the difference between the two, and this trick doesn’t always work, but when it does, you’ll know it’s passive voice! 

How can someone tell when the past tense is being used? There’s a nifty little trick called the “zombie test” that helps me (and yes, I still use it today, even at work). The trick is that if you can add “by zombies,” to the phrase (and it makes sense), then that’s passive. 

  • The ball was kicked by Sarah. -> The ball was kicked by zombies (Passive! adding “by zombies” makes sense)
  • Sarah kicked the ball. -> Sarah kicked the ball by zombies (Active – this sentence makes no sense)
  • Sarah kicked the ball by some zombies (Still active, but Sarah might want to invest in armor and a weapon).

If you don’t want zombies on your lawn (and there’s a whole universe of plants that agree with you), then you can use any other group: teachers, students, children, etc. 

  • The car was crushed by teachers. 
  • The dogs were walked by students. 
  • The house had been completely wrecked by children. 
Remembering to look out for zombies is easy though

So, let’s move onto why or why not a writer should use the passive tense.

(1) Leaning toward Active Voice 

Usually, there’s another verb that fits the situation better. 

  • Cookies were eaten by Mimi.
  • Mimi inhaled the cookies. 

(2) Deciding between Active Voice and Passive Voice 

Focusing on a different subject

  • The mouse was chased by the cat (focus is on the mouse)
  • The cat chased the mouse (focus is on the cat)

(3) Deciding between Active Voice and Passive Voice

Action voice is more concise than passive voice as it requires fewer words and because the subject directly performs the action. In this case, the second sample also sounds a little stilted, possibly a little arrogant. 

  • We won the derby!  
  • The derby was won by us! 

(4) Deciding between Active Voice and Passive Voice

To be vague or talk about information in which the people involved are unknown. 

  • Every year, thousands of people are injured (by zombies!).
  • The transmission was placed into the car (by zombies?)

(5) Leaning toward Passive Voice 

Have an Authoritative Tone

  • Solicitors are not allowed after dark. (more formal too!)

As like most writing advice, not everything is 100% right or wrong, yes or no. Think about the image you want to convey, or what feeling you want to give, and start from there. A confident character would most likely use active voice more than a non-confident character; someone who puts others first may use passive voice more than active voice.

Whichever you decide to use, I hope this helps and happy writing! 

Did I forgot something important about active and passive voice? Let me know in the comments!

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