Did you know that March 4 is National Grammar Day? It is, so I thought it would be a good time to discuss everyone's favorite grammar topic.
How much do you know about Active and Passive Voice? Just the terms make some writers cringe. What do they mean? How do they affect our writing? Turns out, they’re not as scary as they pretend to be. Here is a simple breakdown.
Active voice reflects action. It is present in a sentence where the subject acts.
Passive voice reflects being acted upon. It is seen in a sentence where the subject is acted on.
Active voice Passive voice
I teach Basic Boot Camp for Writers. Basic Boot Camp for Writers is taught by me.
The instructor emailed me a lesson. I was emailed a lesson by the instructor.
There are a few more clues to help determine whether a sentence is written in active or passive voice. Sentences with active voice are often shorter and more direct. Passive sentences usually contain more words and lack the personality that the active voice has. They often use auxiliary or helping verbs such as is being, was, will be, etc.
Reread the sentences above and note how the subjects are handled. Notice how the passive voice appears to take the round about way to state its point. Do the active voice sentences appear direct and concise? Which version do you prefer?
Changing a sentence from passive to active voice is not that difficult. Note what was done in this example:
The National Anthem was being sung by her.
She sang the National Anthem.
The active subject, “She”, is acting or “singing”. In the passive voice, “she (her)” is not taking direct action. Passive is an indirect way of saying what the active voice says. Which sounds better?
When discussing when the use of passive voice is necessary, Bruce Ross-Larson, author of Edit Yourself says,
“Some rule mongers would say that the passive voice should never be used (or would say that you should never use the passive voice). True, it generally is better to use the active voice because it is more direct and more concise. But the subject of the sentence should dictate voice. At issue is whether the subject of the sentence is the subject of the paragraph. The passive has two justifiable uses, both of which turn on whether the actor is less important than what is acted upon.”
In other words, occasionally the passive voice works in cases like this, when the actor “He” is left out:
He adjusted the calibration to ascertain where the mechanical failure was.
Passive would change it to:
The calibration was adjusted to ascertain where the mechanical failure was.
Even with practice and good information, sometimes I get turned inside out trying to "unpassive" a sentence. Here are two links that I've found helpful:
Grammar Girl - Avoid This Common Passive Voice Mistake
More on National Grammar Day
Visit Grammar Girl's National Grammar Day page for great info, tips, activities, and links.
Stay tuned - my 5th Blogoversary events include giveaways, interviews, and a guest post.
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Do you have trouble with active and passive voice? What helps you keep it straight?
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