Most of us learned about sentences in grammar school. Most of us also promptly forgot all about them after grammar school, which is why, I presume, the art of the correct voice is something almost all of us have to relearn at some point in our writing careers. I would venture to bet that most of us have been slapped with a reprimand for “too many passive verbs” at one time or another. And, for many of us, the first reaction was an unmitigated, “Huh?”
One of the marks of a professional writer is his mastery of active sentences. Prose that sings almost inevitably does so with the aid of well-chosen action verbs. If we hope to shape our own words into likenesses of the masters of the craft, then we too have to learn how, where, and when to balance our sentence structures. So, first of all, a quick primer on the differences between the two:
In an active sentence, the subject is performing the action described by the verb: Annan seized the sword.
In a passive sentence, the subject is having the action performed upon it: The sword was seized by Annan.
The easiest way to spot the difference is to keep your eyes open for state of being verbs, such as is, am, were, was, are, be, being, and been. Also known as linking verbs, these words are a vital part of the English language, but not always the best choice for a novelist who wishes to infuse life (as opposed to just being) into his prose.
Overuse of passive verbs leads to sentence constructions that lack strength and are often bloated with awkward phrasing. Of the two example sentences above, the first sentence not only portrays a more immediate sense of urgency, it also gains the added merit of conveying the same notion with one less word.
Perhaps the biggest pitfall of passivity is that few us even realize we’re doing it. When I was first warned about passive verbs, my response was to shrug and sniff, “Hmp. I never do that.” A quick glance over my latest manuscript was all it took to surprise me with the number of times I did do it. Implementing active verbs instead of passive is, like pretty much all of writing, a conscious act. We have to train ourselves to recognize the passive constructions as we are writing them—and to substitute active constructions whenever possible.
None of this is to indicate that passive verbs don’t have their place in fiction. They absolutely do. In special instances where the emphasis is on the object (the sword in the example sentences) instead of the person (Annan), passive constructions are preferable. Some sentences demand a more low-key approach; hard-hitting action isn’t always appropriate for the tone we want to convey
It’s a temptation for many authors (myself among them), upon hearing that active verbs are preferable to passive, to attempt to obliterate passivity from their writing. But not only is this nearly impossible, it’s also unrealistic and unproductive. In order to make our prose as powerful as possible, we require the assets of both active and passive constructions. My guessimation leads me to believe that a proper ratio of active to passive is around 80-20. But don’t look on this as a hard and fast rule. Strive for action, but keep yourself open to the fact that passivity is occasionally the best choice.
Postscript: A few days after publishing this post, I received a comment pointing out that I had incorrectly used the word “tense.” A quick bit of research proved the commenter more than correct. Tense refers to the time frame of a sentence (e.g. past tense, present tense, future tense). Voice refers to the passivity or activity of the sentence. I’ve amended the post accordingly, and I stand gratefully corrected.
Story by K.M. Weiland