Active and Passive Voices

By Genevieve Fosa

I was surprised to find out how many otherwise well-educated people are confused over the meaning and use of active and passive voices.

In a nutshell, with active voice, the subject does whatever it is, and with passive voice, whatever it is is done to the subject by an amorphous other.

Editors will tell you that active voice is preferable to passive, but for those who are confused, this dictum is meaningless. Even the grammar check on Windows word processing programs will point out those places where passive voice is used, as though it were grammatically incorrect. Passive voice is not bad grammar, it simply isn’t as strong as active.

“The election was lost,” is perfectly good English, but it is passive voice. We don’t know who lost the election, merely that it was lost. “George Bush Jr. lost the election” is active voice. Here we know exactly who lost the election. It’s an excellent statement. But it is wishful thinking on my part, and this article is not supposed to be political.

Not long ago, some broad thinking people came all the way up from Kansas to tell us poor people here in Kennebunk, Maine, about right thinking. You could tell they had gone to a lot of trouble and expense to put their posters together. They marched up and down in front of several of our churches. (Please note the active voice in this last sentence, even though I used the word ‘they.’ I did specify who ‘they’ were in the sentence before.) In fact, I had the distinct feeling these people had hired a professional to help them with their posters, as they were all so neat, and clear, and easy to read. And yes, the statements on them were in active voice. Here is what several of them said: “God hates Gays.” “Gays are hated” would have been a truer statement, but it would have used the old no-no of passive voice, and would not have gotten people’s attention the way “God hates Gays” did. By their creative use of active voice, these charming people managed to get the attention not only of people going to and from church, but of several news stations and newspapers from all over the state.

On a more serious note, active voice is more attention-getting, and this is why editors tend to like it better. Even so, there are times and places when passive voice is the more appropriate one to use. These would be situations when you are setting a mood in a descriptive passage. “The sky was lit with jagged streaks of lightning, and the earth soaked with rain” is an okay statement, describing a storm. It is useful when you want to draw your reader’s attention somewhere else. In this case, the strong, active verbs would be reserved for your protagonist.

However, “Lightening crackled and roared across the sky, and rain poured down, soaking into, and flooding all the land around,” is definitely active, calling attention to the storm. This statement is far more dramatic than the one above, and for this reason, is more likely to hold your reader’s attention.

Genivive Fosa blogs at