Use Your Outside Voice – Active and Passive Voice in Writing

I’m starting to write some of these little notes down, partially in case someone comes along wondering what something is, but also because it helps me commit the ideas to memory.

The Internet is already full of definitions of active voice and passive voice, but writing it down gives me a chance to internalize it and, hopefully, will help someone who was wondering about the differences. It’s mute, sludgy testimony to the intricacies of the English language that such a variation in sentence structure can even exist, let alone have an impact on writing.

If you dig around a little you’ll find all kinds of definitions of active voice and passive voice and they all come down to the same kinds of thing: subject, verb, and object placement in sentences.. The definitions of grammar are written by grammar experts who have not only their own jargon, but their own argot. The problem with grammar experts is they’ve achieved a level of competency in English grammar most of us never will. Along with the high level of competency comes a whole new set of terms to explain things and that’s where things get confusing.

Your basic English lit definitions of active voice and passive voice break down like this:

  • Active Voice is a sentence where the subject performs the action indicated by the verb.
  • Passive Voice is a sentence where the subject is acted upon by the verb.

If you’re not an English major (I’m not, I was a Speech Comm major), the general gist is active voice tells what something does, passive voice¬†tells¬†what was done to something.

So, why is this a big deal? In the final analysis you still find out what happened, right?

Well, the problem is passive voice is clunky. It lacks a certain punch and drains the vitality out of the language. Passive voice sentences whine about doing their best while active voice sentences go home and have sex with the prom queen. Active voice sentences are the doers, the movers and shakers. Passive voice sentences are the slackers hanging out in the parking lot complaining about how hard things are.


Look at the gif above and we’ll write a couple sentences about it:

  • The stranger in white defeated the Axe Gang with a stunning flurry of powerful kicks.
  • The Axe Gang was defeated by the stranger in white’s flurry of powerful kicks.

Which one is more interesting? If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know the first sentence is active voice and the second is passive voice, but that shouldn’t impact your decision about what’s interesting. Just because someone tells you active voice is better doesn’t always make it so.

Both sentences have their merits. The first sentence feels like something someone would say when they were trying to be exciting and vibrant, like me after a few drinks. The second sentence conveys the exact same information but feels more like an emotionless information recap. A reader (or listener if we’re telling this tale at a bar) would expect to see more action happening. What else did the stranger in white do? Did he use his fists of fury? Was the Buddha Palm used? Where was the prom queen during the fight?

The second sentence feels like it should be followed with “Film at 11”. Unfortunately, that’s what this whole thing comes down to: feelings. It’s not about information transfer, both sentences transfer the same information. Passive voice doesn’t feel as exciting as active voice.

Feelings, or at least eliciting them, is what writing fiction is all about.

So, are there times when passive voice, with all its mopey, bland glory finds a place to fit in? Why, yes. Just like the stoned slacker in the parking lot eventually finds success in life by selling drugs to undercover cops, passive voice has its uses. In situations where the actor is unknown, passive voice is the preferred mechanism for delivering information.

For instance: Pandora was given a box with all the world’s evils in it. We don’t know who gave Pandora the box (It was Zeus. He was a jerk.), so the passive voice is the best construct in this case since “someone gave Pandora a box with all the world’s evils in it” doesn’t lend the same air of mystery.

Also, just as an aside, it was actually a jar in the original Greek, not a box.

Another example. Mistakes were made. We don’t know who made them. It certainly wasn’t us, but the mistakes happened so someone must have made them.

While it’s true that active voice has more punch, passive voice has its place in writing, too. Passive voice, like everything else in writing, has to be used judiciously and intentionally.