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Passive

Updated: Oct 5, 2021


In the town where I live there is a Passivhaus which was built in 2012. I happened to be friends with the architect and went to its opening with my kids. The idea of Passivhaus is that by using superinsulation, solar power and thoughtful design the amount of energy needed to run a home can be drastically reduced so that the house is passive - its impact on the environment virtually nothing.

Passive = good.


In the world of horses there are such things as active and passive riders, or so we aspiring equestrians are told. The active rider takes charge, works hard, makes things happen, inspires their horse to greater performance - makes progress. The passive rider just sits there and lets the horse do everything. Or (most likely) not.

Passive = bad.


To be passive simply means not to act. Sometimes this is a good thing to do, other times it's not. For example, it's probably not a good idea to shout at your kids when they wind you up, but shouting would be the right thing to do if one of them was about to step out into the traffic without looking.

Perhaps to attribute the idea of 'good/bad' to passivity is just too simple a way of looking at it. At the very least, the notion of passivity exists. It's real. So that means it ends up in people's writing.

The passive voice is a grammatical construction. I know about it because I teach it to children. I teach children how to use the passive voice and in which contexts it is appropriate. I don't teach them not to use it.

In the passive voice the subject of the sentence is passive - which means they(it) do not 'do' the verb, but have the verb 'done to' them.


Small Patrick was pounced on and hugged by a bemusing variety of sisters.


Small Patrick is the subject of the sentence - the sentence is about him - but he is passive in it. He didn't do anything. He had something done to him. That's the story. People are often passive in life and it's perfectly OK to make them so in writing. The passive voice in this sentence helps give a sense of Small Patrick being powerless and confused as the sisters converge on him. If it was written in the active voice it would have to be about the sisters (because they are 'doing' the verbs) and all that subtle meaning would be lost. The passive voice adds to the intended meaning.

Small Patrick is passive in the sentence, but that doesn't mean he's passive all the time. Most sentences are written in the active voice because the subjects of sentences are usually active.

If you use the passive voice for effect in a sentence, you are not a 'passive writer' -whatever that might be.

A passive rider (of horses) is a rider who does not act - a lazy rider. As a rider, you kind of need to act, or the horse doesn't know what to do. You're in charge! A writer who uses the passive voice is not a 'passive writer'. The subject of the sentence is passive, not the writer. The writer is actively using a grammatical construction to add meaning to their writing.

I'm not sure there can be any such thing as a passive writer - someone who churns out their writing without thinking about it much, copying the style/content of others mindlessly, maybe?

And if there is such thing as an active writer, it's someone who understands what they are doing. If they are not sure how to use a grammatical construction, or a piece of punctuation, they look it up and BE sure, so they can use it for precise effect. Or else they are so confident in their voice for writing that they just boldly tell their story and have no concern for such issues at all.


I sometimes catch conversations on writers' social media involving high levels of anxiety about whether someone's writing 'is passive', and whether they should seek out and eliminate all instances of the verb 'to be' to sort it out.

Hang on.

Eliminate the most common verb in our language from your vocabulary entirely, because you've read somewhere that it indicates the use of a grammatical construction you don't understand but believe to be bad?

Now THAT sounds kind of passive.







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5 Comments


Naomi Lane
Naomi Lane
Oct 10, 2021

Im just another Naomi passively sitting on my couch reading your fine article. I am too lazy to enact any writing right now so I'll just let this information wash over me.

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I appreciate your insight on this topic. I tend to just write without thinking about the passive vs active voice then remember when editing. But that’s an important point that active isn’t always the best choice, that it depends on the narrative.

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First sentence, “built” not “build.” Great article. 😊

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Naomi Rose
Naomi Rose
Oct 05, 2021
Replying to

Thanks! And thanks!! 😁

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gail.merritt
gail.merritt
Oct 03, 2021

Great article. I totally agree and feel that sometimes the rush to illuminate ‘errors’ in the writing can deflate a writer to such an extent that they feel insecure. Maybe I’m wrong but ultimately ‘the tale’s the thing’. I wonder how many stories and novels remain unfinished or hidden in drawers because a writer was critiqued too flippantly.

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