How to Use the Passive Voice for Emphasis
I utilize the Writerswork platform when creating all my pieces. Mainly for the text insights features. Every once in a while a purple highlight will show up in my drafts that says “AVOID USING PASSIVE VOICE.” Naturally, I had to do a little digging to remember exactly what the passive voice is (grammar class was a long time ago).
What is the difference between passive and active voice?
Briefly I found the following as a review:
Active voice is in the order of Subject, Verb, then Object (SVO).
- Example: The student reviewed the grammar rules.
Passive voice is generally in the opposite order Object, Verb, and sometimes Subject (OV+/- S).
- Example: The grammar rules were reviewed (by the student).
For all the visual and auditory learners out there, here is a quick YouTube video that summarizes Active Vs. Passive voice nicely.
Does Using the Passive Voice Make Me a Bad Writer?
Here is the thing that made me worry. Sometimes when passive sentences were highlighted in my writing, I struggled to change them into the active voice. It didn’t feel right or it changed the tone and focus against my intentions.
Concerned that I was publishing inferior pieces, I turned to Medium for your opinions.
Derek Haines wrote a piece titled, “What is Passive Voice and Why Should You Avoid Using it in Your Writing?”
Haines quoted John Bremner who stated the following:
“…Passive voice is preferred by the weak, the cowardly, ashamed to name the fink who told them what they are evasively telling you.”- John Bremner
That petrified me. Am I weak? Cowardly? I thought I knew myself. Now I am not so sure.
Delving back into my pieces, I found that there are times when the text calls for a passive voice. It needs to be strategically used to shift the focus on what the writer wants to highlight.
Using the Passive Voice Without Harming Your Credibility
Searching for an excuse to leave my stubborn passive sentences intact, I stumbled upon an article published by the University of Toronto. This article states six main situations where the use of passive voice appears often:
Going through this list, I realized that I tend to use the passive voice when the actor is irrelevant or I want to focus and emphasize the thing being acted upon. Number 3 (When you want to be vague) is a topic of debate that I will touch on later.
Somewhat relieved, I searched further and found Michael Skapinker’s article “Orwell Was Not Always Right: in Defense of the Passive Voice.”
Skapinker argues that the “experts” don’t always have the final say on stylistic choices. Sometimes passive writing is simply better than the active alternative. It all depends on what you are trying to stress.
With this new (or refreshed) knowledge I turned back to my own writing. Here I have pulled some highlighted culprits of passive voice to analyze. Please correct me if I am wrong, as it has been forever since I diagrammed sentences. The first one in particular is tricky.
In – “How to Forgive Yourself“:
- Passive -There is a story that weighs heavily on my heart and demands to be written, but NOT TODAY!
- Breakdown– Story (Object), demands to be written (Verb phrase), SUBJECT= ME *not specified
- Active– My story, that weights heavily on my heart, demands that I write it.
- Passive– Reluctantly sending it in, I half expecting my proposal to be shot down.
- Breakdown– Proposal (object), Shot down (verb), Subject-not specified
- Active– Half expecting the editor to shoot my proposal down, I reluctantly turned it in.
In – “A Hard Lesson in Responsibility“:
- Passive- I didn’t mind, as long as he was taken care of.
- Breakdown– He (object), Taken care of (verb phrase), Subject- not specified.
- Active– I didn’t mind as long as my sister-in-law took care of him.
Reflecting back on these examples, there are times when it would be smoother to use the active voice. However, often times the subject is irrelevant and makes for repetitive sentences and wordiness if the subject is always added.
The Takeaway- Use Passive Voice When Appropriate
Using the passive voice doesn’t necessarily make you a coward, unless it does. Haje Jan Kamps wrote a persuasive piece titled, “Don’t Apologize in the Passive Voice.”
Apologizing in the passive voice by saying, “mistakes were made,” doesn’t own up and claim responsibility. Therefor, this harms a writer’s credibility and makes them appear cowardly or untrustworthy.
I don’t want any reader of mine to think I am shady. From now on, I will only use the passive voice when it adds value to my text. Am I going to sit and struggle to change every passive sentence into active? NO… not if the passive serves my purpose and better portrays my intent.
How often do you dare to use the passive voice? What circumstances have you used the passive voice to create emphasis?