Differences Between Active & Passive

 . . . AND WHAT DETERMINES WHICH YOU SHOULD USE

You've probably heard some writers claim that active voice is good  . . . and that passive voice is bad in some sense and should be avoided at all costs. T'aint necessarily so. Your story will dictate how much of each is needed, and usually you'll need both.

First, lets talk about active and passive voice per se. What's the difference? Well . . .

  • In passive voice the subject of the sentence is acted upon, and the person or thing doing the acting often appears as the object of the preposition "by." Here's an example:

 Smith was murdered on Monday by Wesson.

  • Passive voice uses a form of the verb "to be" (was, were, is, are) to specify number, person, tense, coupled with the past participle of a verb to name the action. Note that passive voice focuses primarily on an action or occurrence rather than on who's doing something .
     
  • In active voice the subject produces an action. Here's an example:

 Wesson murdered Smith on Monday.

    Note that active voice focuses primarily on who's doing the action .
     

As to the question of which to use , the answer is "it depends." It depends on the effect you want to achieve . Before deciding which to use, consider the following:

  • Decide what your emphasis is . If you want to draw the reader to focusing on the action (what was done), passive voice is more appropriate. If you want to focus on who's doing the action, active voice will be best.
  • If the doer of the action is unimportant or you want to mask his or her ID , use passive voice (e.g., Smith was killed on Monday.).
  • If you want to slow down the pace , passive voice may be better, since it inevitably involves using more wordage. If you want to speed up the pace, active voice may be better.
  • If you need to cut words , change passive to active voice if such a change doesn't ruin your pacing. Active voice sentences are inevitably shorter.

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Last Updated:

Sunday, January 20, 2008