Thursday, April 25, 2013

GrammatiCats: Voice

Hello again from Internet land!

Sorry these last few posts (and comments, visits, et al) have been on the late side - my life's inbox has been full to overflowing with you-know-what.

Anyway, voice!

Not the "finding your unique writing style" kind of voice - that's well outside my purview.  (For that, you need to come to DFWcon and hear Jenny Martin's class: she will take you to the wall!)

But you know how people are always ragging on the "passive voice" and talking about why you shouldn't use it?

Well, I'm here to tell you that - just like alcohol, television, and saturated fats - the passive voice can be part of a healthy literary lifestyle.  And the only way you can make good decisions about when and how much to use it is by having the facts and knowing the alternatives.

... that sounds more like a medical pamphlet than I'd intended, but you get the idea.  Onward, to voice!

Pinkie Rating: 3

Essentially, English has two voices: active and passive.

Active voice is our basic default: you can hear it in little kids' first full sentences.  "I want water."  "He hit me."  "Stop it!" 

As you may recall, a complete sentence requires two things: a subject and a verb.  In active voice, the subject is the thing "doing" the verb.  (Here, let me see if I can sink an Arrested Development bank shot with this one:)

In this example, "I" is the subject, "have made" is the verb, and "a huge mistake" is the object. This sentence is in the active voice because "I", the subject, is the one who made the mistake.

By contrast, in the passive voice, the subject is the thing "done unto" by the verb.  Think about the little kid again: when she's a tiny bit older, she figures out that saying "I broke it" will get her in trouble, but "it got broken" avoids that by scooping the guilty "I" right out of the sentence.  (Then there's "HE broke it," of course, but the magical world of lies is beyond the scope of this blog.)

Here, we aren't told who made these mistakes (though Satellite-Cat's grim visage gives us a hint or two!)  If we were going to add that in, it'd have to say "Mistakes were made by me" - a longer and more roundabout way of saying "I made mistakes."  This is one major reason why your English teachers and editors don't like passive voice: the sentence either contains less information, or else takes longer to communicate the same amount of information, than its active-voice equivalent.

Okay, so when WOULD you want to use passive voice?

Well, when you think about it, there are some times when you really do want to mention the "doer", otherwise known as the agent, second or not at all:

1.  You don't know, don't care about, or deliberately don't want to mention the agent.

In this case, the agent is obvious - YOU have let Birthday-Cat down with an unsuitable cake - and doesn't need explicit mention in the sentence.  That lets the emphasis stay on what the speaker really wants to emphasize: herself, and her utter contempt for you.

But I bet you you can think plenty of other instances where the agent is:
  • irrelevant:  "Shirts and shoes are required"
  • unknown:  "We got robbed!"
  • better left mysterious:  "The place had been ransacked."
2.  You want to focus primarily or exclusively on the object.

It was known throughout the land as Mt. Everbreast, a phenomenal nap-spot for anyone brave enough to make the summit.
It's true that we could change the beginning of this sentence to read "Everyone knew it as...", and that might still be the best choice, depending on what preceded the sentence and what our goals are.  The way we have it right now, we're giving no information about the agent (we don't say at all who knows this), but on the flip side, we're focusing from beginning to end on the object - the reader never has to shift focus from who knows to what they know.

Which brings us to the third possibility:

3. You want to end the sentence at its most powerful point.

Actually, that's not an argument for the passive voice per se - it's a good writing strategy, period.  Whenever you can arrange to have your biggest and most powerful word or idea at the very end of the sentence, it packs an extra wallop, sets up the reader for the next sentence, and draws his or her interest forward.

Many times, active voice works just fine for that: "We can't defuse the bomb!"

Sometimes, you have to do a little finagling:  "The jury foreman read out the verdict: guilty."

And sometimes, passive voice is where it's at:  "He was kidnapped by his own mother."

(All actual dialogue from my new thriller screenplay: Cyberdeath by Action Murder.  I know, right - zippy!)

So there you have it: prefer active voice on general principle, but use the passive voice with laser-like confidence and precision when it serves your purpose.

Further Reading:

Active Voice, Passive Voice - very short and helpful, with nifty little diagrams (and cats!)

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1.  Shelter kitty!  Courtesy of Dr. C
2.  Another shelter kitty!  (A little depressing, I know, but I can't resist)
3.  Xena, courtesy of my own dear mother
4.  Our own spoiled Peaches
5.  Mordecai, courtesy of Stacey G.
6.  A lovely cat from Singapore!  Courtesy of Susie F.

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. When I first started learning about, passive and active voice I was certain I'd never figure out how to spot it in my own writing. I was wrong though, kinda. I can pick some out, but other times, I still need my betas to slap me upside the head. ^^

    1. We ALWAYS need betas, though - there's just no way around it. You know, your head gets so full of what you mean to say that you just gotta have somebody else to tell you what you actually said. The most we can hope for is that they slap gently and to good effect!

  2. Interesting. Now I am curious how much I may use Passive Voice in my fiction. After the A to Z I will have to investigate some!

    Now to climb Mt. Everbreast, I need a nap! Just kidding >.< Though, I should go to bed.

    1. Haha, it's not for the faint of heart! (The mountain, that is. Passive voice can go either way.) I don't know how you stay up so late, but I know that when I wake up and see a giant 5:00AM traffic spike, it's because you've stopped by like a mystical comment-scattering Santa Claus and worked your magic. Thanks, St. Jak!

  3. I remember being confused by active and passive voice when I was at school. The example given by my English teacher was "The dog bit the postman." I just thought that you had to swap the subject and the object, but could never understand why "The postman bit the dog."

    1. Haha, I can see where that is ripe for confusion and some seriously strange litigation, yes! I had a hard time explaining this one myself, because it would make sense if you just swapped the subject and object, and yet... as you've noticed, that kinda doesn't work out right.