When my husband asked me last night about what I was writing, I told him and was amazed that one person could crinkle up his face so completely. So, the gauntlet was thrown; I had to take a technical topic and turn it into an invigorating discussion.
Some years ago I read a book entitled Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). This title is a good example of what this article will explore: voice choice as an element of writing style. It is written in the passive voice, which is frequently maligned by educators and writers. Why would someone choose this for a book title? What other choices are there, and how and when do you use each choice?
Voice in writing can either be active or passive depending on whether the writer wants to emphasize the subject (the doer of the action, active voice) or the object (the receiver of the action, passive voice). Our book title is passive because the emphasis is on mistakes, the receiver of the action. Who didn’t make mistakes? Me, the doer of the action. We can turn that sentence around to make me the emphasis (active voice): I did not make mistakes. However, the original phrase in the title is said to be the “king of non-apologies” (National Public Radio, It’s True: ‘Mistakes Were Made’ is the King of Non-Apologies, 2013) and a phrase used by President Grant, Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler, President Reagan, President Clinton, Governor Chris Christie, and President G. W. Bush to leave the blame to some nebulous, unknown actor (it wasn’t I who made mistakes, but I’m not going to say who did). Great choice for a book title.
Some sentences are neither active nor passive because there is no object or receiver of some action. For example, the sentence I slept for ten hours last night is not active or passive because nothing and no one received the action of sleeping. Active voice follows the pattern Subject-Verb-Direct Object as in these sentences:
I (subject) eat (verb) sushi (object) as often as possible.
My dog (subject) dug (verb) holes (object) in our yard.
To change them to passive voice,
- Make the direct object the subject of the sentence.
- Change the verb to a passive verb: a form of to be (am, is, are, was, were, been, be, being) + the past participle of the verb (for example: shaken, walked, or done).
- Optionally (and often deleted), put the subject of the active sentence in a phrase that begins with
Sushi (former object) was eaten (verb) as often as possible by me (former subject).
Holes (former object) in the yard were dug (verb) by my dog (former subject).
Note: These passive sentences sound awkward, which is one reason why passive voice does not always work.
Educators frequently discourage the use of the passive voice. There are some good reasons for this, but there are also some times when the passive voice works rather well in writing. Some people call the use of passive a mistake; that is a myth. It has its place, but there are some strong arguments for the use of active voice:
- Active voice uses slightly fewer words – being concise is always an advantage.
- Dangling modifiers are more often a problem with the passive voice. A dangling modifier occurs when a phrase is not near the noun, pronoun, or verb that it describes/modifies. For example,
Having eaten a full meal, the television was turned on to the football game.
It sounds like the television ate a full meal. I don’t think so.
- Passive voice often sounds very impersonal and doesn’t make clear the actor; for example,
Passive: The prisoners were subjected to hideous medical experiments.
I would like to know who the perpetrator was:
Active: Dr. Josef Mengele subjected prisoners to hideous medical experiments.
On the other hand, passive voice is sometimes appropriate.
- Many people believe that in scientific and technical writing the passive voice is appropriate because it can focus on the process or materials rather than the actor/doer.
Flower petals were added to the chemical mixture to create a new exotic perfume scent.
- Sometimes the direct object of a sentence is the focus and therefore more important, especially when we know who the actor is or if the actor is unimportant.
Six track and field records were broken at last Saturday’s meet.
There are many more arguments for the use of active voice than there are arguments for the use of passive voice, but it is helpful to have some familiarity with the steps to turn active to passive or vice versa because the appropriate choice of voice can be a positive aid in creating a lively writing style.
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