Grammar Writing Techniques 2018-08-20 00:00

In Defense of Passive Voice


Rules are meant to be broken. And in the case of passive voice, that's doubly true.

Though it's often correct to avoid passive voice, it sometimes has its uses, especially for fiction writers. Let's take a closer look.

Use 1: Expressing Character Traits

Let's say we're writing about a passive character named Pogo. He allows his life to pass him by, and we want to express that to our readers. Sure, we can show examples of Pogo's passivity. But we can also underscore the trait stylistically by using passive voice.

For example, imagine a scene in which Pogo drives to work. Our first sentence might read something like:

  • Pogo drove a green Honda Element.

(Yes, I drive a green Honda Element. Great car.) Now, let's try restructuring the sentence into passive voice:

  • The green Honda Element was driven by Pogo.

Though not technically correct, careful readers will notice what you're doing. Even when he's the subject of the sentence, poor Pogo's passivity pushes him into a place of lesser importance.

Use 2: Placing Emphasis on Other Words

In some sentences, you might want to emphasize the direct object rather than the subject. Passive voice is an excellent way to do it.

Here's an example:

  • Magic: The Gathering is the world's first trading card game. Richard Garfield invented it in 1993.

Nothing wrong with either of these sentences. But since Magic is the key subject of them both, we might re-jig that second sentence so that the game takes more of a forefront.

  • Magic: The Gathering is the world's first trading card game. It was invented by Richard Garfield in 1993.

A minor change, but it shifts emphasis to the game rather than the game's creator.

Use 3: Deflecting Responsibility

Since passive voice is all about distancing the subject from the verb, it's an excellent tool for separating those responsible for an action. Fiction writers will most often use this technique in dialogue.

This is a classic technique used by teenagers when they throw parties at their parents' houses.

  • The couch got stained.
  • The toilet got clogged.
  • All our food was eaten.

In this case, passive voice explains the action without placing blame on any particular subject.

Now you've got some tips on using passive voice. Try them out and see how you like them.

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