Do You Mean Passive or Just Weak?
A great deal of nonsense is written about “Passive Voice,” especially on sites targeted to writers.
Here’s a typically misleading bit of writing instruction under the heading “How to Make Passive Writing Active”:
Take the sentence “The inn was noisy.” This is a fine sentence. It communicates what’s going on in the room. But it’s passive. We can make it stronger. To do this, we ask who or what made the inn noisy? Maybe the patrons, maybe just a few drunk old men at the bar. But saying, “A few drunk old men at the bar made the inn noisy,” gives you a lot more information than “The room was noisy.”
If this writing coach is labeling “The inn was noisy” as passive because of the verb was, then the second sentence is no improvement. Both was and made are unexceptional verbs that link their subjects to the adjective noisy. Grammatically speaking, both sentences are in Active Voice.
The problem here, as in similar advice to writers, is using the word passive as the opposite of strong: “But it’s passive. We can make it stronger.”
Voice is the grammatical term for the form of the verb that shows whether the person or thing denoted by the subject does the action or receives the action of the verb:
Sammy struck the ball out of the park. (active voice)
Sammy is running around the bases. (active voice)
The ball was struck out of the park. (passive voice)
I don’t know if the confusion about passive voice began with Strunk and White, but misinformation in the over-venerated Elements of Style has done much to spread and reinforce it. (For details, see Taking Another Look at Strunk and White.)
Depending upon the author’s purpose, passive voice can be a valid stylistic choice. That being said, writing can be tightened and enlivened by ridding it of unnecessary linking verbs and by replacing continuous (progressive) tenses with simple tenses.
One way to dispel the confusion over the grammatical meaning of passive might be to find other adjectives to describe weak, unimaginative verb choices. Here are a few suggestions:
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Keep learning! Browse the Grammar category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:
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