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Active and Passive Voice by Dan Brotzel

Dan Brotzel's debut short story collection, Hotel du Jack, is out on January . To whet your appetite, here's a preview of one of his stories, which has just been nominated for a Pushcart Prize...

In English we can distinguish between two voices: active and passive.

Voice is useful for helping to choose which part of a sentence we want to focus on. And contrary to some popular advice, using the passive voice doesn’t automatically make you a passive person!

Telling active and passive apart
The difference between active and passive is easier to show than to explain, so let’s start with some examples:
[1] Jane did all the washing for them both.

This is an active sentence. The subject Jane of the verb washed is also the one doing the action. This coincidence of subject of verb and doer of action is key to identifying and understanding the active voice.

Now you might think the subject of the verb in a sentence is always the doer of the action. Not so! Take this example:
[2] The washing was done by Jane (every single week).

Here the subject is the washing, and the verb phrase it goes with is was done. But, contrary to what some (ie Jim) might think, the clothes didn’t just wash themselves. Jane did the washing, again, but though the sentence is describing the same state of affairs as example [1], she is no longer the subject of the verb, but has been relegated to a position at the end of the sentence.

The doer of the verb in a passive sentence is known as the agent. The agent is easy to spot because they are usually preceded by with or by. For example:
[3] She’d often been told by her mates what a loser he was.

So [2] and [3] are examples of a passive sentence, where the recipient of the action, rather than the doer of the action, becomes the grammatical subject. This is a very useful construction when we want to put the focus of our sentence on the person or thing on the receiving end of the action. For example:
[4] Her head had been turned by his roguish good looks, his way with a guitar, and the fact that he was the only bloke she’d ever met who would get up and dance. For a while, this actually seemed enough.
[5] She was easily persuaded to let him move in when he lost his flat. It would only be for a few weeks, he said.
[6] It wasn’t just the washing. Day after day, carpets were hoovered, food was bought, dinners were cooked, the dishwasher was emptied, and the toilet bowl was scrubbed – while Jim sat sucking on his bong staring at Ariana Grande videos claiming to be seeking ‘inspiration for my breakthrough album’.
[7] Her pleas for a more equal arrangement about house stuff were met with sulky indifference, sardonic eye-rolls, and protestations that, like, ‘I can’t right now, babe, I’m in the flow’.

We might call example [7] an instance of the passive-aggressive voice. This is not strictly a grammatical category, of course, though the behaviour was very real and endlessly repeated.

Formation of the passive
The classic passive construction consists of a conjugated form of the verb be + a past tense participle. For example:
[8] When her mum was + knocked down by a van and her leg was + broken in two places, Jim couldn’t even be arsed to go and see her in the hospital (even though she’d lent him all that cash for studio time so he could put his demo together).
[9] He was + given so many chances to sort his shit out.
[10] She was + filled with a sudden rage at the thought of how much time she’d wasted on him.

If the doer is known as the agent, the recipient of the action is known as the patient. And by God, she had been.

The short passive
In the following examples, we’ve put the agent in square brackets. Try reading them with and without the agent.
[11] I’ve had a shit day at work and I’d just like a cup of tea, thought Jane. But the milk’s all been used up again [by Jim].
[12] Why was she expected [by Jim] to be the breadwinner and the skivvy in their relationship, while he just sat up smoking and ‘jamming’ all night and slept through the day?
[13] What about her goals and ambitions? Why weren’t they ever taken seriously [by Jim]?
[14] She noticed his teeth had been whitened [by an expensive cosmetic dentist, no doubt], and wondered where’d he got the money.

As you’ll have noticed, it’s perfectly possible in these examples to dispense with the agent altogether and for the sentence to still make perfect sense. This construction is known as a short passive.

There are lots of reasons why we might want to dispense with the agent. Perhaps it’s just obvious:
[15] Her hot flushes, night sweats and moodiness were not remarked upon, apart from in the odd reference to ‘shark week’ or ‘riding the cotton pony’. She didn’t tell him she wasn’t actually having periods any more.

Perhaps the agent isn’t central to the story we want the sentence to tell:
[16] He’d been seen flirting with the girl behind the bar at The Roxy.
[17] All his gigs had been cancelled, she found out, though it wasn’t clear if there’d really been any in the first place.

Or perhaps we’re not sure who the agent is:
[18] ‘Do you not feel loved, babe?’ he’d always ask, shooting her his special look, whenever they had an argument. ‘Don’t you know how much you’re adored?’
‘Who by?’ she answered flatly.

Myths about the passive
The passive is not a tense. Indeed, passive sentences can be constructed with any tense or aspect. For example:

[19] Cash was withdrawn from the shared account again yesterday – the one they were supposed to use only for rent and emergencies.
[20] More of her cash is probably being withdrawn right now, as he’s just gone out to the pub again with his druggie muso mates, and he hasn’t earned anything for months.
[21] More money will no doubt be taken out tomorrow, unless she does something.

Using the passive isn’t always a sign of bad writing. It’s very useful in certain contexts. As well as enabling us to switch the focus of a sentence onto the element we want to prioritise, it also allows us to put to the end of the sentence any element we have a lot to say about. For example:

[22] She was accompanied to the specialist by her sister, who was the one person who’d never tried to judge their relationship but who was obviously secretly delighted that Jane was finally thinking of kicking this deadbeat out of her life once and for all.

Using the passive doesn’t automatically make you a shirker of responsibility. Because of the agent-less short passive, people think the passive is a weaselly part of speech used by people trying to evade responsibility for things. In fact, this effect is just as possible in the active voice. For example:
[23] ‘Plans are for squares, babe,’ he always said, in those rare moments when she dared to ask about how things stood between them. ‘That’s not how we roll.’
[24] ‘Let’s not rush things,’ he said. ‘If a baby wants us, it’ll come knocking.’

Using the passive voice doesn’t have to mean you’re passive! People commonly confuse the passive voice with passivity as a character flaw. Certainly it’s true that, historically, the passive has been used to reinforce stereotypical gender roles. A woman for many centuries could not marry, she could only be married, for example; and certain verbs of sexual intercourse followed a similar pattern until relatively recently in our cultural history.

But sometimes the passive construction can signal a proactive decision, however difficult. For example:
[25] The cause of premature ovarian failure is often unknown.
[26] By the time he woke up next day, the locks had been changed and most of his stuff had been piled neatly in bin bags in the hall.
[27] The sabotage of his vintage Fender – the one thing he really cared about, apart from himself – wouldn’t be spotted for several hours at least.

Final exercise
Look at the following sentences and decide which clauses are in the active or the passive voice:
[28] Friends’ calls and texts were not answered; Jane wanted to be left alone with her sadness.

[29] Dimly she saw a new path ahead, and she knew this sunken feeling was the unavoidable start of it.
[30] She hadn’t known how much she wanted a child – till she knew she couldn’t have one.

Dan Brotzel

Dan Brotzel