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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Passive vs. Active Voice

What is passive voice and why do writing teachers cringe whenever they see it? These are the questions of the week.

You might wonder what this topic has to do with grammar. Passive voice isn’t incorrect grammar, strictly speaking. But in this space we also address clarity, precision, even beauty in the written word. Besides, passive voice is a term some kid taking an English comp class might need to know. Her Google search has led her to us; let’s not disappoint her.

Voice, as we’re discussing it here, has to do with how a subject and verb work together in a sentence. First let’s look at active voice, which is a straightforward, subject-verb-object construction:

Babe hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth.
Who’s our actor in this scene? Babe. What did he do? He hit. What did he hit? A home run.

Here’s how to spell it out in grammarese:

Subject = Babe
Verb = hit
Object = a home run

(In case you’re wondering, in the bottom of the ninth is frosting on the cake. It’s not part of the discussion here.)

Active voice charges out and fights dragons. Subject! Verb! Object! What could be easier?
Pat stepped on her birthday cake!
Buffy dusted ten vampires!
Katie Anne threw a tantrum in the grocery store!
But here's what happens when we change these sentences to passive voice, that namby-pamby way of writing:
A home run was hit by Babe.
The birthday cake was stepped on by Pat.
Ten vampires were dusted by Buffy.
A tantrum was thrown by Katie Anne in the grocery store.
Look what’s happened here. Suddenly the home run, not Babe, is in charge. Babe has gone hiding under the bleachers. We trudge to the very end of the sentence before we even find out who hit the home run. We’ve stripped the vibrancy from the sentence. It’s lukewarm.

The grammatical breakdown looks like this:

Subject = a home run
Verb = was hit
Object = none; by Babe is a prepositional phrase

It’s sad to reduce a great like Babe Ruth to the status of a prepositional phrase, folks. And can we in good conscience relegate the vampire slayer, or even bratty Katie Anne, to the same position? This is why we call this construction passive voice: Our strong, brave subjects—the people doing the hard work in the sentences—are no longer subjects. The objects have taken their place. And, as we learned last week, there’s the rub.

Passive voice is weak. English teachers hate it. In fact, readers hate it. Strong, active verbs rule the day.

Attention spans being what they are, I’ll continue this lesson on Wednesday, when we’ll discuss when, if ever, passive voice is appropriate. Stay tuned.

Another Word Puzzler to stretch those brain muscles on Tuesday! And yes, what would be the fun of grammar without a test on Friday?

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