Erin's Poetry Tips

40 tips to poetry and poetry forums

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Passive vs. active voice

Who Dunnit?

The English language has two voices, active and passive. When the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb, it is said to be active. In a passive sentence, the subject is not performing the action of the verb, another noun in the sentence is performing the action on/to the subject.

Active Ex:
Erin wrote this sentence.
‘Erin’ is the subject, she performed the action – Erin wrote.

Passive Ex:
This sentence was written by Erin.
‘Erin’ is no longer the subject, ‘sentence’ is now the subject, but the ‘sentence’ isn’t performing the action, ‘Erin’ is.

Active sentences are more powerful because they’re shorter. Passive sentences use an average of 35% more words. Fewer words make a more direct, concise statement. Active sentences are also easier to read and understand. Passive sentences, in addition to using more words, use more weak words, such as demonstrative pronouns (the), prepositions (by, of) and the weaker passive (to be) form of the verb.

For a potent poem, or any other form of writing, use well-built sentences. The strong verbs, solid nouns and clear descriptions add to the strength of any writing project. Using passive sentences consistently will ensure that your writing is less direct, bogged down under weak words, and unfailingly ineffectual.
There are times that passive voice is acceptable, such as when you want to hide who performed the action in the sentence, which may preserve a sense of surprise for the end of the piece. Used carefully, it can add suspense, such as when used in a sentence like, “My heart has been broken.” If used in a poem where you’d like to surprise your reader with the fact that your heart was broken by some unusual person (or thing perhaps) then this may work for you. Just take care not to be too passive, or your reader may never make it to the twist at the end, because they feel confused by the passivity and wordiness.
There have been studies that show that the human mind is more apt to retain information written in the active voice format. One thing most writers hope to achieve is to make their reader remember their work. This is particularly true when submitting work to a publisher.


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