If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably remember that several months ago I did a short series on grammar myths: topics such as ending sentences with prepositions, split infinitives, and starting sentences with conjunctions. One subject I didn’t cover, however, was use of the passive voice.
Chances are that at some point in high school or college you took an English class in which the instructor repeatedly advised never using the passive voice because it’s “weak.” Generally, it is better to use active voice, but there are plenty of situations where passive can be extremely useful and effective. And one of them is when you’re constructing sentences according to the principles we looked at last time:
- Simple information, then complex;
- Familiar information, then new; and
- Topic, then comment (or examples).
Although these principles sound simple enough, sometimes it can be challenging to use them. In English we’re rather restricted when it comes to our options for word order: most of the time, sentences have to follow the basic pattern subject—verb—object (the recipient of the action):
A dog (subject) bit (verb) my husband (object).
But what if we have a complex subject and simple verb and object? Or, how can you structure an ongoing flow of familiar then new information in an story? Sometimes the best solution is none other than the passive voice—despite all the advice you may have heard to avoid it at all costs.
First, a quick review: passive voice basically turns the usual sentence order on its head. The object comes first, followed by a verb which usually includes a form of to be, and then the actor (subject) in a phrase starting with by (although sometimes the actor is not even mentioned). It’s the difference between
A dog bit my husband. (active)
My husband was bitten by a dog. (passive)
Let’s examine the first possibility mentioned above, a complex subject and simple verb and object. In active voice we’d have something like:
A tiny long-haired Chihuahua who seemed like he would never do anyone harm (subject) bit (verb) my husband (object).
There are a couple of potential stumbling blocks here. The reader has to spend a while processing the long phrase describing the Chihuahua, making the verb and object seem almost an afterthought. It’s also somewhat jarring to see the last word of the subject phrase harm bump up against the verb bit: harm can’t bite (at least not literally). And we want to follow the simple, then complex principle. So if we put this sentence into the passive:
My husband (object) was bitten (verb) by a tiny long-haired Chihuahua who seemed like he would never do anyone harm (subject).
Notice how this flows much more smoothly, and we have the simple information first, more complex later. And a bonus is that this version better highlights the irony of a seemingly harmless dog being vicious–the end of the sentence is a powerful position.
Now let’s turn to sequencing a flow of events. Remember that we want to keep familiar information first, then introduce new. This time we’ll start with the well-written version first—the passive voice verbs are underlined:
For weeks, many people in the neighborhood had noticed a young Labrador puppy wandering around. It soon came to light that the puppy had been abandoned by its owners, who claimed they had no time to look after it. The owners subsequently were charged with animal cruelty and were compelled to do community service at an animal shelter.
Notice how using the passive voice keeps the events flowing smoothly, with good transitions: first we meet the puppy, then its owners, and finally we find out what happened to them.
Here’s how it would look if you wrote the above with all the verbs in active voice (again, underlined):
For weeks, many people in the neighborhood had noticed a young Labrador puppy wandering around. It soon came to light that the owners, who claimed they had no time to look after the puppy, had abandoned it. The police arrested the owners for animal cruelty and the local court compelled them to do community service at an animal shelter.
In this version your attention is constantly being shifted: we meet the puppy, then the owners, but then it’s back to the puppy again. Then we drag in the police and the court, which isn’t at all necessary to the story. We want the focus to remain on the deadbeat owners and what happened to them. So this is another bonus of using the passive voice, since it doesn’t have to include the actor.
If you’d like to read in more depth about further uses of the passive voice, as well as other grammatical devices that can come in handy for rearranging sentences, I suggest you get yourself a copy of a fantastic book called The Sense of Style by Stephen Pinker. You long-time readers are probably getting tired of my promoting it, but it is worth every penny if you’re serious about improving your writing. I’d always considered myself a good writer, but I have learned—and continue to learn—so much from it. (I’m not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for this endorsement.)
If you have any questions, or if you find any good or bad examples of using passive voice in these ways, please share them below!