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Up From Down Under June 2008

Active and Passive




Writers hear a lot about 'Active and Passive Voice'. The admonition for writing fiction is usually in favour of expanding the active and reducing or eliminating the passive.


Are you wondering why? It's because active voice is more likely to hook your readers, grab their attention, and propel them through your story until its earth-shattering conclusion.



Active voice moves, man.


In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action described by the verb.


For example:


Felicity won the race.

Let's analyse that simple sentence:

Felicity  =  subject of sentence.  (A girl called Felicity, okay? The sentence is about her doing something.)

won  =  verb.  (A form of the verb 'to win'.)

the  =  definite article (determiner). We could have written "a race", but I wanted to be definite about it.

race  =   noun. (We need to know what she won. Although, if your audience knows what's happening, you could say Felicity won. In fact, you may even add some emotion and exclaim, "Felicity won!" Sorry, I digress.)


Would you like to see another example?


Consider this:


Theodore fought his way through the blizzard.


To analyse:


Theodore  =  subject. (A man called Theodore. Or, it could be Theodore the Spanish bull, if you prefer. I don't mind.)

fought  =  verb.  (A form of the verb 'to fight'.)

his way through  =  other thingies in the sentence. (Let's not get too technical about pronouns, ancillary nouns and prepositions.)

the blizzard.  =   definite article and noun. (We needed to know what Theodore was fighting.)


Try to remember it like this: The subject performs the action described by the verb.


Active voice is what the experts recommend for fiction writing. It carries the action directly from your protagonists as they perform their roles in your stories.



Passive voice receives the moves.


Yes, in passive voice, the subject receives the action described by the verb.

Consider this:


The race was won by Felicity.


The race is the subject and Felicity has acted or moved on it by winning.


Like to try another passive sentence?


Let's not go near The way through the blizzard was fought by Theodore. That's too pathetic for even a second thought.


Here's something more entertaining:


The financial report for the last three months' transactions was discussed by the Board of Directors at the quarterly meeting.


No, don't panic, I've no intention of analysing that sentence word by word. Suffice to say it's in passive voice. The subject, financial report, receives the action from the Board of Directors.


Passive voice is more common in business writing and government statements, because it can be used to draw attention away from those responsible for action, or lack thereof. (Did you notice that was a passive sentence?)


Play it again, Sam.




Active voice has the subject doing something.


Karen grabbed the thug and kneed him in the groin.


Passive voice has the subject receiving something.


The thug was grabbed and kneed in the groin by Karen.


(Female readers may approve both versions.)


Oh, okay guys. Here's another pair of examples:


Active –


Karen grabbed Jeremy and pulled him down to meet her lips.


Passive –


Jeremy was given the financial report.  (What do you mean I tricked you? It's passive isn't it?)


Oh, okay –


Jeremy was grabbed by Karen and pulled down to meet her lips.


Everyone happy now?



Wait, I'm not finished yet!


Be patient. I want to say more about verbs. Remember, verbs are the action words in sentences - win, fight, grab, pull - you get the message, I'm sure.


However, don't confuse active voice with active verbs. A sentence written in active voice may be downright dull and flabby. Compare the following:


Felicity was the winner of the race.


Felicity won the race.


Both sentences are active voice. The subject, Felicity, performs the action. But the second sentence is stronger because of the verb form used – won.


Unfortunately, not all verbs are equal when it comes to being active. In fact, forms of the verbs 'to be' and 'to have' are lazy and inactive. Passive verbs, that's what they are!


'Weak verbs such as "is," "was," "are," "had been," and "have been" tend to stagnate amid a collection of dormant verbiage. Readers stuck in such a quagmire skim the pages searching for the next interesting passage.'*


Here are some examples of how to avoid passive verb boredom:




Tom had been there all day.

Tom stayed for the day.

We have had to leave early each day this week.

We left early each day this week.

John will be here tomorrow.

John arrives tomorrow.

Joan was hungry; she couldn't have had enough to eat for breakfast.

Joan was hungry; she skimped on breakfast.

I'm sure by now you will have got the idea.

Now you understand!



* Sundblad, Donna  2004 (?) Trimming the Excess from Your Writing. Absolute Write, Morris Publishing,


Other references:


Cambrian College, Ontario, Canada

OWL online writing lab.

Capital Community College, Hartford, Connecticut  (Includes exercises for changing passive voice to active voice.)



Les Stephenson. Reprinted, with revisions, from The Muse Marquee, December 2005.