The use of passive voice in creative writing is widely frowned upon, yet this very statement uses it. Are there times when passive voice is better?
What is passive voice?
Consider the phrase: Roger burned the toast.
The action is “burned”, the object of the action is “toast” and the subject of the phrase is “Roger”, the one performing the action. The fact that Roger performed the action is emphasised.
If I rearrange this sentence so that the object of the action becomes the subject of the phrase, and the subject is no longer the one performing the action I get:
The toast was burned.
The latter phrase is in passive voice. This phrase removes the emphasis from the performer of the action, Roger, and places it on the object of the action, toast.
The grammatical construction is such that a finite form of the verb to be precedes the past participle of the action verb. Generally the past participle is recognised as being the form that ends in “ed”.
Finite form of to be + past participle = passive voice
What is not passive voice?
There are some common misconceptions about passive voice. One of the most common relates to the use of the past progressive (otherwise known as past continuous) form. This is a phrase containing was or were followed by the present participle.
Consider the example: The toast was burning.
This is active voice. It is the past progressive form, and the verb burning is the present participle. This is generally recognised as the form ending in “ing”.
The past progressive form is used to indicate one of the following:
Concurrent actions. Action a was happening while action b was happening. I was working while you were watching television.
An event during a continuous action. Event a happened while action b was happening. I stopped work when you were making dinner.
Creating atmosphere. In the pub the landlord was washing glasses. Several people were playing cribbage while others were drinking or talking.
In order to put this passage into passive voice I would say: In the pub the glasses were being washed. Cribbage was being played and there was drinking and talking.
Clearly this is a much weaker way of writing the passage.
Why is the use of passive voice frowned upon?
The principle reason passive voice is frowned upon is because the statement is weakened by the loss of emphasis on what or who is carrying out the action. In our first example:
Roger burned the toast
We know exactly what happened. When placed in passive voice:
The toast was burned
We lose a key piece of information about the event. This weakens the statement.
Why is the use of passive voice sometimes the right approach?
I have breakfast at the hotel restaurant, and when it arrives it is poorly prepared. At this point my narrative may say:
The toast was burned and the eggs overcooked.
The obvious fact that someone in the kitchen did this need not be stated. Indeed, the reader would be frustrated by the irrelevance if the author told them it was a cook called Roger.
Such use of passive voice is not only acceptable, but it can be preferable to the active voice alternative.