Today I’m going to talk about passive voice in writing. This one is one that I hear people talk about all the time. A lot of times the discussion reminds me of a famous quote from Mark Twain in that it ends up sounding like “something that everyone wants to talk about but, no one wants…” to bother to find out what the heck it is.
So here’s an easy definition. When the subject of a sentence is detached from the verb: that’s passive voice. Normally in a sentence you have two words that you can write down and still have the gist of the sentence. He swung. She sang. They whined. Passive bucks that rule by hiding the subject of the action. “The tree was felled by the lumberjack.” The subject of the sentence is the “tree” but the action is performed by a noun hidden in a prepositional phrase, not by the tree itself. You can sometimes identify it by the use of a generic verb, like “was” or “is” followed by a verb that’s had “ed” added to the end.
In George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” the famous author makes a few assertations on what he felt was needed to save the English language from losing its effectiveness. Many of these habits have, thankfully, been corrected. In some cases, we might have even gone too far (see my journals on unnecessary words).
Orwell is often quoted from this essay as saying, “Never use passive voice.” First off that’s not a quote from his essay. It’s a quote from a random idiot on the internet. What Orwell said meshes much better with my general philosophy on writing. He said, “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” Notice how he doesn’t say you will never use it, instead he says that it should be used only when you have to use it.
I’d can also point out that Orwell is writing an essay directed at people who write newspaper articles and other types of technical writing. He mentions prose in a couple places, but the essay is directed (as you can tell by the title) directly at people writing about politics. As I’ve said before, writing prose cannot follow the same rules as writing informational works. You end up with bland and sterilized prose and lose the chance of any kind of artistic expression.
So why would something like this jump from news articles to creative works? Orwell hints at that but doesn’t come out and use a nice quotable sentence. In another essay (that I couldn’t find, and neither could my publisher when I asked him to help) Orwell mentions that passive can be used to muddle information—to essentially make it look like someone or something else is responsible for the action. I was really hoping to find that essay because I’m not sure I’m a good enough author to actually pull that off on purpose. At the very least you’ve set up a mental barrier on the action. While I doubt anyone is going to think that the tree in my example above was responsible for its fall, the person responsible, the lumberjack, is slightly removed from the action.
You don’t want your characters removed from the action. Sajani swung her sword in a high arc, causing a dramatic displacement of air as it severed the burning fuse. In passive it loses its effectiveness. The sword was swung by Sajani in a high arc, causing a dramatic displacement of air as it severed the burning fuse. I’ve changed the emphasis of the sentence from Sajani to her sword.
Now, what if, in the preceding events, it’s been a great struggle for Sajani to get that sword in time to be able to cut the fuse? Is it possible that I want the reader focused on the sword and what’s being done with it, a little less than I want it focused on Sajani? It is, and an established writer can use that as an effective way to show it.
I have noticed that the strict exclusion interpretation is slowly becoming much more relaxed than it was a decade ago, although I worry a little about what that might mean. Unfortunately, I’ve heard from more than one publisher (not RP Games) that a single use of the passive voice disqualifies a manuscript from publication. For that reason, the use of passive voice falls firmly in my category of things you can do as a writer but shouldn’t.
Thanks for being with me today. I hope you enjoyed this little foray into writing and philosophy. Orwell is a hot topic right now, but that’s not why I picked his essay to talk about. I picked it because he’s one of the few that approaches it objectively. You can find the essay here. I will mention, just to make getting through it easier, you can mostly skip the examples he gives at the beginning. You don’t need to understand them. He’s using them because they are hard to understand. It’s better to refer back to them when he mentions them than to bother reading them.
As always, thank you to my few followers. You’re the reason I’ve kept going. There’s a shortage of non-authoritarian writing advice that’s without the usual author angst. Feel free to share the link. I’m open to suggestions on what to write on. You can either direct message me through the site or contact my publisher on Parler. He’s (a)RPGames.
Oh and buy my books! I’m better at fiction than I am at stuff like this. I’ll sign off with this excellent quote from the Orwell essay, “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.”