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Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Pleasures and Perils of the Passive | Constance Hale, NYTimes.com

This column is about use of the passive voice in writing. Hale describes it and its opposite version, the active voice:
In the active voice, the subject performs the action. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon.
In a classic English sentence in the active voice, the subject starts the show, followed by a dynamic verb. The subject is the agent, the person or thing taking the action: She reads. Sometimes there is a direct object: She reads “The Odyssey.” The sentence is pointed and precise. The action flows briskly from the subject, through the verb, to the object.
If that sentence were in passive voice, it would be something like this: "The Odyssey" was read by her. In other words, the person reading The Odyssey ("her") would get less emphasis; the name of the book would be highlighted as the subject of the sentence.

Hale provides another graphic example of the two uses:

  • Passive voice--"Dr. Seuss is adored by most children."
  • Active voice--"Most children adore Dr. Seuss."
In the way Hale began her column, I was expecting it to be a strong argument for frequent use of the passive voice. But, fortunately, that's not the case. Instead, Hale provides several valid reasons for using the passive voice, and she concludes emphasizing that the active voice is usually the stronger, clearer sentence structure. 

I like her little story-telling angle in this concluding paragraph:
Whether you are writing the next novel, a scholarly paper, a legal brief or a brief Tweet, be aware of the voice of your verbs. Try letting each sentence tell a little story, with an agent right there at the start. Set your protagonist in action. Do you want him, as Hamlet would say, “to take arms against a sea of troubles,” or would you rather he be left lying flat on his back, leaving his destiny up to someone else?

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