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Writing tips and techniques from the publisher of Swimming Kangaroo Books. Send your 3-page writing sample to be critiqued to dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com with the word "critique" in the subject heading. Your submission will be critiqued on the blog, but your name will not be used unless you give permission.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Active and Passive Voice

One of my writers asked about the use of Active and Passive voice:
I keep reading that passive voice are words ending with ing. and needed to be changed to active. I go through all my work trying to get rid of ing words. Is this a mistake I'm making? Always eager to learn.

I had "Jesus, is that real?" he asked, his voice sounding steady and unperturbed. Active and passive words do confuse me and I like sounding instead of sounded much better. If you have the time maybe you could put examples on your website for us mugs to study.

This writer asks a very good question. Many writers have a difficult time sorting out active and passive voice and when to use "ing" verbs.

First let’s look at voice. Voice tells whether a subject acts or is acted upon. In active voice, the subject performs the action:
The dog barks. (The dog is doing the barking.)

In passive voice, something is done to the subject:
The dog is annoying to many people. (The dog is considered to be annoying by many people.)

When writing fiction, it is generally considered more effective to write in active voice whenever possible. Active voice emphasizes the doer and usually requires fewer words. It is crisper and puts the reader into the action. Generally passive voice can be converted to active voice by removing the “to be” verb forms and using present or past voice. For example:
Passive: The dog is eating.
Active: The dog eats.

However, “ing” doesn’t just signify passive voice. It also is used for the present participle of verbs, which denotes a time relationship. In the sentence: “The dog barked, wagging his tail.” the verb “wagging” is a present participle, denoting that the dog was wagging his tail at the same time that he barked.

The present participle is used to add description to an active verb phrase, in which sense it acts as a verbal adjective.

In the example given by my writer, "Jesus, is that real?" he asked, his voice sounding steady and unperturbed, "asked" is quite properly in past tense, signifying the action that "he" performed. The use of the verb "sounding" is also correct: it is the present participle form of the verb "sound" and indicates how he sounded at the same time that he asked the question, thereby acting as a verbal adjective.

It also would have been correct to write, "Jesus, is that real?" he asked. His voice sounded steady and unperturbed. Note, however, that it was necessary to separate the two phrases into two sentences. In this case, "sounded" is in the form of a past participle, and is still a verbal adjective, indicating how his voice sounded.

Either way is correct and the good writer would want to use both forms in order to vary the sentence structure.

So when determining whether to use an “ing” form, look at the purpose of your verb. Do you want to tell us what your character did? If so, then you want to use active voice.
John broke a window.

But do you want to tell us HOW your character did something? If so, then you may want to use a present participle verb form.
Running fast, John broke a window.

You can also use active voice instead of the present participle. If you are going to do that, then make sure your verb tenses match and use a conjunction between the two verbs:
“John ran fast and broke a window.”

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Blogger goofy said...

The passive voice is formed with "to be" plus the past participle.

active: the dog bites me.
passive: I am bitten by the dog.

None of your examples are in the passive voice.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Swimming Kangaroo said...

You are correct. Thank you. This is why I am not a copy editor (or an english teacher!)

Many writers and editors point to the "ing" verbs as being passive. The intent is to point out that "ing" verbs do not denote action as effectively as using a verb in the active voice.

7:53 PM  

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