by Michael Bedford
Published at 2021-04-28
Although there are some who would advocate for a world free of passive-voice constructions, an all-out ban on this wrongfully maligned verbal form would be going too far. It is true that the active voice generally provides clarity that the passive voice tends to lack, but when used effectively, the passive voice allows for an element of mystery or gravity that can be difficult to achieve in straightforward active-voice constructions.
The first step towards deciding whether to allow the passive voice in a piece of writing is learning to recognize the difference between active and passive constructions. So, here are three literary examples that demonstrate how the construction of the active and passive voice work.
1. “Through my father’s exertions, a part of the inheritance of Elizabeth had been restored to her by the Austrian government.”
This first example is from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and, although the subject matter may be a bit boring compared to hunting an undead monster, the above provides a great example of a passive-voice construction. In this sentence, the subject is “the Austrian government” since it is the party performing the action, that is, restoring a part of Elizabeth’s inheritance. Using the active voice in this construction might have helped Shelley cut down her overall word count but by employing the passive voice here, Shelley is able to pack a great deal of information into one sentence: not only has the reader learned that part of Elizabeth’s inheritance has been restored, they’ve also learned that it was restored, as Victor the protagonist describes, because of actions taken by his father.
2. “Christmas decorations were going up in all the department store windows.”
Next, a sentence from Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. I included this quotation because it highlights a unique feature of preferring the old wisdom and recasting it in the active voice. This sentence could have been “Christmas decorations were being put up in all the department store windows,” but Richler’s choice to use the active voice manages the task of highlighting the Christmas decorations rather than the person putting them up better than the passive construction would have. Richler’s active-voice construction makes sense because the reader intuitively understands that an unnamed agent is the one responsible for putting the decorations up rather than the decorations putting themselves up while also highlighting the fast-paced nature of downtown Christmas festivities.
3. “The air is filled with the bleating of calves and sheep, and the hustling of oxen, as if a pastoral valley were going by.”
Finally, the above sentence from Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay “Walden” contains both the active and passive voice. The construction featuring the active voice is at the end of the quotation, “as if a pastoral valley were going by.” Aside from possible confusion caused by this phrase’s subjunctive mood, this is a relatively standard active construction. The subject, “a pastoral valley,” precedes the action it is performing, “going by.”
The passive construction in the sentence appears at its beginning, “The air is filled with the bleating of calves…” In this construction, the subjects are “the bleating of calves and sheep, and the hustling of oxen,” which perform the action of filling the air. Recasting this sentence into the active voice would be relatively simple, for example, “The bleating of calves and sheep, and the hustling of oxen filled the air, as if a pastoral valley were going by.”
Rather than enhancing the above sentence, though, recasting it into the active voice strips it of its significance, sounding instead like a casual description of a barnyard. Thoreau’s choice of phrasing helps him identify himself and his values to the reader.
Finally, if a phrase doesn’t make its subject clear right off the bat, it’s likely you’re dealing with a passive construction. Just remember, not all passive-voice constructions are bad. After all, some of them have probably just been given bad reputations.
Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Stoney Creek, Ontario. He can be reached at https://mgb-editor.com/.