Passive voice: What it is and why to not do it
When you start learning about writing, when you're just a wee ink-smearer, one of the first things you get told is "don't use the passive voice!" Which might be great advice, but completely meaningless to the fledgling writer. Certainly took me years to figure it out. So: what is the passive voice and why should you avoid it?
What is passive voice?
Passive voice, if I can be a little linguistic here, is when the agent of a phrase isn't its subject. Let's break it down further.
Agents and patients
A sentence is usually about something happening. Something happens to something, or something is made to happen by something. Here's some examples:
The storm raged.
What's happening? Raging is happening; and there's a storm doing the raging.
Lucy ate Jerome's questionable hamburgers.
In this example, Lucy is doing the something (in this case, eating).
So we've got nouns doing things: a storm raging, a Lucy eating. In an English sentence, the noun doing the thing is usually the agent. Agents are the ones getting stuff done. If there's another thing in the sentence having something done to it, that's the patient. In the sentence "Lucy ate Jerome's questionable hamburgers", Lucy is the agent because she's doing the eating, and the questionable hamburgers are the patient because they're having the eating done to them. Jerome doesn't have any particular role at this stage.
Subjects and objects
Now: put that idea to one side, and I'll explain subjects. Subjects are a little more awkward to explain. The formal definition of a subject is that it is first and most important of the two main arguments of a predicate, which isn't a very helpful definition unless you're already a linguist. In more general terms, your subject is usually what's in charge of your sentence: the verbs you use line up with the subject, and, in English, the subject usually precedes the main verb of the sentence.
So in the sentence:
Johnno baked a croquembouche.
Johnno is quite clearly the subject: the verb for that sentence, "baked", is in first person singular past tense. The noun "Johnno" comes before the verb, which is another good sign it's the subject. Here's another one:
They were baking croquembouche all night.
Whoever they are, they're the subject: the verb "baking" has taken "were" as a partner to produce "were baking"—the third person plural past tense. And, once again, the noun "they" proceeds the verb "were baking".
Now, some sentences can have just a subject and a verb.
But in the two earlier examples, both have the object "croquembouche". The subject's verb does things to the object. Generally, if you've got another noun kicking around the sentence and it isn't the subject, you've probably found the object. Good work!
Mixing them up
Okay, the thing is: normally the subject (ruler of the sentence structure!) and the agent (doer of the verb!) are identical. One and the same. The power-mad emperor of the phrase. But not always.
Johnno baked more croquembouche.
Subject and agent: Johnno. Object and patient: more croquembouche.
More croquembouche were baked by Johnno.
Okay—the croquembouche are the subject here, as you can see by the fact that they precede the verb "were baked", and the verb has taken the third person plural past tense form to please them. The croquembouche are in charge here. But wait—Johnno's still doing the baking! Johnno's still the one changing the situation, that poor unsung hero! Johnno is still the agent (and nothing can take that away from him), but now he's the object. Subject and patient: croquembouche. Object and agent: Johnno.
And that, right there, is a passive sentence.
Why can't I use it?
Too much passive voice makes your writing sound a bit weak and flabby. Nobody's doing anything; everyone's having stuff done to them. Passive constructions tend to be a wordier way of saying what you're trying to say, and extra wordiness is rarely a good thing.
Never say never. The passive voice, like any other rule of English use, is a guideline and nothing more: it is as good or as bad as its context and effect. If you make an effort to clear it out of your writing, you may find the writing becomes more direct and punchier—but not always. You'll also find constructions where forcing your sentence into an active form adds more information than the reader needs.
For example, let's say Johnno had to be operated on to repair some long-standing baking injuries. You could write:
Dr Wong operated on Johnno yesterday.
But in some contexts, it's not going to matter two biscuits who did the operating: let's say Johnno's mum is writing to Johnno's Aunty May. Johnno's Mum could very well write:
Johnno got operated on yesterday.
In this construction, Johnno is the subject, but also the patient (pardon the pun). The agent, Dr Wong, has evaporated. Which is fine: as far as Aunty May's concerned, she's got all the important data here.
Sometimes the passive voice is a fantastic way of finishing a sentence with a major bam:
My life was ruined by my pony.
The passive voice delays the moment at which the reader gets to the major point of the sentence, building a little tension. Used well (by which I mean sparingly), this can be very effective.
There are situations where the agent is less important than the patient, and therefore the having the patient as the subject is entirely appropriate.
A word of warning
I would venture to suggest that the most creepy use of the passive voice is the evasion of responsibility. Passive voice can be used to dissolve the agent entirely and for this reason, it gets used a lot in business and government writing.
DuckyCorp has increased all fees to $980 per person.
All fees have been increased to $980 per person.
Who are you going to get angry with? There's not really any agent here to blame.
DuckyCorp has accidentally deleted your payment record.
DuckyCorp, how could you? Explain yourself!
Your payment record has been accidentally deleted.
Well, that's disappointing. Time to move on with life.
I suspect this is one of the major reasons passive voice is generally discouraged: it used so frequently in a weaselly way that it can end up carrying a negative cachet.
What should I do instead?
Recognise when you're using the passive voice and double-check it. If you can say the same thing using an active construction, without compromising the intended effect, then try it.
The winning cake will be decided by the Vice-Chancellor.
The Vice-Chancellor will decide the winning cake.
Fame was brought to Johnno by the croquembouche!
The croquembouche brought Johnno fame!
Remember, a rule is only as good as its effect: steer away from passive voice, but don't forget it has its role to play in the writer's toolbox.