Hamlet put forth this iconic question in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Many writers grapple with this same question when deciding whether or not to use “to be” in a sentence. The dilemma stems from its association with voice.
Active vs. Passive
By definition, active voice consists of a subject who performs an action received by an object. By contrast, the passive voice puts the recipient in the subject position, relegating the action’s agent to the end of the sentence. Consider the two following sentences expressing the same idea; one in the active voice and the other the passive.
active: The lawyer questions the defendant.
passive: The defendant is being questioned by the lawyer.
In the active voice, the lawyer is actively questioning the defendant. However, in the passive voice, the defendant becomes the subject, displacing the questioning lawyer.
In general, the use of the passive voice over the active voice has two major consequences. First, the passive voice requires more words, creating longer sentences. Second, moving the recipient to the subject position shifts the focus away from the agent. In the sample passive sentence, emphasis moves away from the lawyer to the defendant, weakening the act of questioning.
What does “to be” have to do with it?
Many believe that if a form of “to be” appears in the sentence then it is automatically passive voice. This is not necessarily true. Consider the following sentences.
active: The children are singing a song.
passive: The song is being sung by the children.
Both sentences contain a form of “to be.” However, the first sentence meets the criteria for the active voice by putting the agent of the action, “the children,” in the subject position. The second sentence reflects the passive voice not just because it has a form of “to be,” but because the recipient of the action of singing, “the song,” sits in the subject position.
So, in the end, what does “to be” have to do with voice? In passive voice, it is everything. You cannot have a passive voice sentence without a form of “to be.” However, as illustrated above, not all instances of “to be” signal the passive voice.
Does passive voice play a role in writing?
Considering the apparent drawbacks of the passive voice, should it ever be used? Yes, when justifiable. Use the passive voice when:
- addressing a problem while trying to avoid assigning responsibility,
eg.The lights were left on all night.
- wanting to keep the emphasis on the action’s recipient and not on the agent,
eg. The tree was blown over by the wind.
- writing something that needs to remain objective,
eg. The scientific findings were organized from most to least important.
- or trying to stuff a writing assignment with enough words to meet the word count minimum .
Because the use of passive voice is context driven, no definitive answer exists. Answer the following questions to determine if you should employ the passive voice in your writing and, if so, to what degree.
- Why you are writing?
- For whom you are writing?
- What are the word count restrictions, if any?
- Is the text objective or subjective in nature?
In most cases, you’ll find that the passive voice does not belong. If any instance of the passive voice cannot be justified, rewrite the sentence in active voice. So, dear Hamlet, in answer to your anguishing quandary of “to be or not to be,” 99% of the time the answer is “not to be.” Readers prefer the simple, concise, and engaging quality of the stronger active voice.
*I couldn’t justify inserting my 20-paged, literary analysis written for a professor requiring that it be at least 10 pages in length. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.