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Friday, June 17, 2011

Let's Exercise!

Do you actively check for instances of passive voice in your revision exercises?  No?  Drop and give me 20!

Choosing between the active and passive voice in writing is a matter of style, not correctness.  However, in most circumstances the passive voice is less forceful than the active voice, and a string of passive verbs often produces an awkward paragraph.

AWKWARD PASSIVE    Last night, the floor was scrubbed by my dad, and the faucet was fixed by  my mom.
ACTIVE                           Last night, my dad scrubbed the floor, and my mom fixed the faucet.

AWKWARD PASSIVE    The first wristwatch was created by a court jeweler when a watch in a  bracelet was requested by Empress Josephine.
ACTIVE                            When Empress Josephine requested a watch in a bracelet, a court jeweler created the first wristwatch.

SUCCESSION OF PASSIVES  When my mother was asked by the local camera club to give a guest lecture on the photography, we were all amazed by the request.  Neither of my parents had ever been chosen to do anything like this before.  Since I was considered the most imaginative member of my family, I was given by my mother the task of choosing the topics that would be presented.  Father was elected by us to choose the slides that would be shown to the amateur photographers.  Extra invitations were sent to us by the camera club and these, in turn were mailed by us to all of our friends.  When the night of the lecture finally arrived, my father, my two brothers, and I were seated by the usher in the first row.  The lecture was introduced by a discussion of how modern photography was influenced  by portrait painting and still-life painting.  After the lecture had been completed, I was impressed by Mother's knowledge and command of her subject.

*This paragraph is not effective because of the overuse of passive verbs.

Use the passive voice sparingly.  Avoid weak and awkward passives in the interest of variety, and avoid long passages in which all the verbs are passive.  Although this rule is generally true, there are a few situations where the passive voice is particularly useful.

            1.  Use the passive voice to express an action in which the actor is unknown.
                        An anonymous letter was sent to the police chief.
            2.  Use the passive voice to express an action in which it is desirable not to disclose the actor.

                        The missing painting has been returned to the museum.

*Sometimes the passive voice is more convenient, and just as appropriate, as the active voice.  In the following sentences, the passive voice is completely acceptable and probably more natural.

            Penicillin, a modern wonder drug, was discovered accidentally.
            The person who was standing near the entrance was asked to close the door.
            The top player was eliminated in the first round.

Remember to use passive voice sparingly, and check for it when you revise your writing.  Otherwise, you'll be a weakling and never get stronger writing muscles!


  1. Great post Cindy! ~Rita

  2. Interesting, thanks. I like the examples of proper use of passive voice. I think it's also good to use occasional passive voice for variety.

  3. That long paragraph was passive aggressive - it wore me out reading it. Or should I say, I was worn out reading the paragraph of passive voice.

  4. I'm glad you found the post useful, Rita, and I'm laughing at Charlie's witty comment.