The Grammar Guardian Presents: Voice Lessons

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Voice lessons

 

Note: The examples used in this article are a continuation of the Story of Millie Black.  To read Millie’s entire story, go back and start with Nouns.  All of the previous chapters are also listed at the bottom of this article for your convenience.   If you have already read the previous chapters or are just here to learn about Voice, and not Millie, read on.

Note 2: All images are courtesy of Quanta Ignis Photography

What Does Voice tell us?

A sentence is like a body. It has a subject that gives it substance and a verb that carries it into action. But, did you know that sentences also have a voice?  The voice of a sentence tells us what is more important – the subject or the action and/or object. First, let’s have a quick review. Look at the following sentence.

The full moon hung low and large in the night sky.

What do we know about this sentence? We know the subject is the moon. The action (the verb) is “hung”. The object is low and large. Now, there is also a prepositional phrase and a few adjectives thrown in for good measure, but the subject, action, and object combination is the important concept to grasp here.

Now, ask yourself the question, what is this sentence about? Is it about the moon? Is it about the sky? By answering this question you can decipher whether this sentence is written in active or passive voice.

Active and Passive Voice

In an active voice sentence the subject is the focus of the sentence. The subject is acting upon the object.  In Passive voice the action and the object are the focus of the sentence. The subject is being acted upon by the object. In essence, the object has become the subject of the sentence.

Tip: To easily locate a sentence with passive voice look for a form of the verb “to be” + a participle

Grammar Tip: To easily locate a sentence with passive voice look for a form of the verb “to be” + a… Click To Tweet

Lets look at a few examples.

Thick fog blanketed (active) the small island. Nothing moved (active) upon the land. Suddenly, the silence was broken (passive) by a trio of screams and one long, low howl.

What is wrong with passive voice?

Technically there is nothing wrong with using passive voice in a sentence. However, most people don’t like to use it. Sentences written in passive voice can become confusing or wordy. These sentences can also leave your reader guessing in order to create a complete picture. Take a look at the following passage.

In the small cave, one of the captives had already been killed. The beast was stared at by the other two, a man and a woman, in fright.

Both of these sentences are written in passive voice. Notice how much effect is lost in the reading. Who or what killed the captive in the first sentence? What was the second sentence about? The beast or the captives? Check out the same sentences written in active voice.

In the small cave the beast had already killed one of the captives. The other two captives, a man and a woman, stared at the beast in fright.

How to change from passive to active voice

Put the actor (the doer) before the verb

Instead of: The trembling woman was turned upon by the beast.

Try: The beast turned upon the trembling woman.

 

Instead of: She was stepped protectively in front of by the male captive.

Try: The male captive stepped protectively in front of her.

 

Drop part of the verb

Instead of: The woman was looking pleadingly at Millie.

Try: The woman looked pleadingly at Millie.

 

Instead of: Millie was staring impassively back.

Try: Millie stared impassively back.

 

Change the verb

Instead of: “Please.” She whispered, “You will not receive trouble from me.”

Try: “Please,” she whispered, “I won’t give you trouble.”

 

Instead or: In her eyes could be seen memories of the ceremony she had just witnessed.

Try: Memories of the ceremony she had just witnessed shone in her eyes.

 

When Is Appropriate to use passive voice

When the object is more important

“Too many lives have been lost by our town” Millie said to the woman.

Notice in this sentence that the lives lost is more important to the message than the town.

 

When the subject is unknown

“The decision has been made to expand the clan and purge our town of your gang.”

In this case, we don’t know yet who made the decision. What is important, though, is that a decision was made.

 

When the readers don’t need to know the subject

“Mistakes have been made, but no more.”

As a writer you may know what the mistakes were and who made them. However there are times when you don’t want to show all of your cards.

Scientific Writing

When writing scientific articles, passive voice is often recommended. Passive voice conveys a level of objectivity to your writing.

You have been shown as guilty by the evidence. You can either tell us what we want to know, or suffer the judgment of the beast.

 

Conclusion

The voice of your sentence can often tell as much about your topic than the words themselves. A sentences voice tells the reader what is most important. What should they really pay attention to in this sentence? In active voice, the subject is the center of attention. In passive voice the action or the object holds the power. Recognizing and understanding how to apply voice in your writing can go a long way in conveying the true meaning of your message.

 

Voice lessons

The Story of Millie Black – Chapter 7 – The Beast

The full moon hung low and large in the night sky. Thick fog blanketed the small island. Nothing moved upon the land. Suddenly, the silence was broken by a trio of screams and one long, low howl.  In the small cave the beast had already killed one of the captives. The other two captives, a man and a woman, stared at the beast in fright.  The beast turned upon the trembling woman. The male captive stepped protectively in front of her. The woman looked pleadingly at Millie. Millie stared impassively back.

“Please,” she whispered, “I won’t give you trouble.” Memories of the ceremony she had just witnessed shone in her eyes.

“Too many lives have been lost by our town” Millie said to the woman. “The decision has been made to expand the clan and purge our town of your gang. Mistakes have been made, but no more. You have been shown as guilty by the evidence. You can either tell us what we want to know, or suffer the judgment of the beast.”

 

Parts of Speech/The Story of Millie Black Contents

Chapter 1 – Nouns – The Dog

Chapter 2 – Verbs – The Field

Chapter 3 – Pronouns – The Letter

Chapter 4 – Building Sentences – The Boat

Chapter 5 – Adjectives – The Cave

Chapter 6 – Adverbs – The Kiss

Chapter 7 – Voice – The Beast

 

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