Active vs. Passive Voice

A sentence demonstrating passive voice.

A very passive sentence

I think that everyone out there who’s writing a story has probably heard this piece of advice before: use active, not passive, voice.

When I first came across this, I had absolutely no idea what it meant. I think I was going to google it, but I must have forgotten. So for the longest time, I was ignorant of what passive and active voice were.

Then it popped up in my Latin studies. (If there’s one way to learn English grammar, I’d say learn Latin.) Thanks to Latin, I now understand this so well, that I’m hoping I can explain it all in English well enough for others to understand.

In the simplest terms, passive voice is when an action happens to a person, while active voice is when a person does the action.

Don’t worry. If you’re still a little confused, I’m going to shower this post with examples.

Mary was seen by her enemies. This is passive voice. Even though Mary is the subject of this sentence, she hasn’t done anything. In fact, she must have been pretty stupid to be standing out there in the open for her enemies to have seen her.

Let’s turn that sentence into active voice:

The enemies saw Mary. There. Now, the subject of the sentence (“The enemies”) is actually doing something. And Mary better start running soon or she’ll end up dead. Can you see the difference?

There’s another kind of sentence construction that’s passive (and it’s one I fall into a lot). It’s the “there is/was/were” construction.

There was a dark tunnel up ahead. This poor sentence is really boring. And passive. How can you turn it into active voice? Solution: A dark tunnel loomed up ahead. The dark tunnel is now doing something (although it’s just a tunnel).

One more thing I want to add here. I’ve read on various websites that words like “was” and “were” are used only in the passive voice. That’s just plain wrong.

You can have sentences with “was” and “were” and still keep them in the active voice. Let’s go back to Mary and her enemies for a moment:

Mary was running towards the tunnel. Mary is the subject here, and she’s also doing something. What’s she doing? Running!

The enemies were pursuing Mary. The enemies are the subject, and they are doing the action. Keep on running, Mary!

So just remember: while “was” and “were” are used a lot in the passive voice, they can be used in the active voice too. If you’re reading through your story trying to get more active voice in there, double check the uses of “was/were” and know that they aren’t always used in the passive voice.

Do you find yourself using passive voice a lot? What are some ways you use to try to avoid passive voice in your stories?

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5 thoughts on “Active vs. Passive Voice

  1. Habibi says:

    Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different browsers and both show the same results.

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