Voice Debates

Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Following a previous blog post, Hung Up on MS Word’s Tools? You’re not Alone!, a blog reader pointed out: “But as much as it is preached that you should avoid passive tense, there are times when it serves a purpose.” That’s a good point, and we know this is true. As writers we struggle to string words together into carefully designed sentences to make the biggest impact. It all depends on our intended meaning in any given context.

Microsoft Word and other grammar checkers “accuse” us of poor writing habits when we write in passive voice. But software programs can’t make distinctions between our intended meanings and our sentences constructions. Writers alone decide the right places to use passive or active voice. Our jobs just aren’t easy!

We know that passive voice tells us what is done to the subject; active voice tells us who’s doing what. Naturally, passive sentences use more words than their active counterparts. In certain contexts, passive sentences fail to emphasize or name the actor in the sentence. For example, it’s the preferred construction in many political crises to avoid naming the wrongdoer. How often has the public read statements like: “Mistakes were made.” Who made the mistakes and what were they? Was it President Bush? What did he do this time?

In college writing classes, students learn to avoid passive voice. I used to teach that passive voice subverts normal word order and bogs down the writing. That sounds negative, but it had no place in academic essays and research papers; it tended to fall under the category of “padding” the paper until students could reach the right word count range or paper length. It was a general requirement course, and not too many students thrived in it.

Of course, we know that passive voice is preferred in the science, technical, and other writing arenas. My husband thrives in an engineering field. He writes in passive voice all the time, and if he asks me to edit any part of his work, I tend to rewrite. It’s a habit for me, and it’s a bad one in this situation. Changing from passive to active doesn’t always sound right. In these cases, his writing ends up losing cohesion.

I think active voice in blog posts and ezines provides a sense of immediacy. It conveys meaning in a concise manner, essentially taking the reader from Point A to Point B in a straight line, or the shortest possible string of words.

This brings me to a big question. How many WOW! readers dabble in these and other fields where passive voice is a necessary part of the writing you do? We’d love to hear from you. We’d love to hear from readers on this subject in more detail. How does passive or active voice apply to your professional writing? For what type of job? Technical? Other? Copy writers?

For fiction writers, how do you decide on active versus passive? Is active voice the best for fiction? I’d love to hear from all writers!



Angela Mackintosh said...

Great observations Sue!

It's odd, but when I write nonfiction or how to articles, I tend to get way more passive sentences than when I write fiction. To me, it seems that MS Word is easier on fiction... I don't know how it can tell; it probably can't. But in cases where I use dialogue etc. it seems to allow passive sentences within quotations.

Of course, no program can fully solve all of our writing dilemmas -- that would make things too easy. I think it's best to write in your own voice and not get hung up on the tools... but I can't avoid checking just to see. It's a bad habit of mine. ;-)

Your point is very interesting though. I wonder how it applies to other fields? Maybe someone will answer!


Anonymous said...

Technically, shouldn't it be active or passive "tense," and not "voice"?

Certainly, for professions such as academics, scientists, and federal government employees, the passive construction is considered the norm.

But even for them, an active tense can vastly improve communication. Joseph William's book, STYLE is a great resource for those required to write with passive tenses.

Sue said...

Hi, Anonymous,

I've been around for a while, and I think it goes by "passive or active voice"; if you check the Chicago Manual of Style, that's how it's labeled.

Not that it really matters, though. But I like to debate! ;-) Thanks for your comment!

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