I've been told that it's always better to turn sentences to active form (at least in fiction writing).

How can I turn the following sentence to active form?

Sophia was woken up by the rattling sound of her washing machine.


Sophia was awakened by the rattling sound of her washing machine.

(I think "Sophia woke up by..." is not very idiomatic).

  • 4
    You've been told wrong. I would forget that advice immediately and run away from the person who gave it. – RegDwigнt Feb 5 '13 at 10:25
  • Yes - there are contexts where Andrew's perfectly grammatical alternatives would sound right, but I'd say that in many cases (in particular, where there has been no prior focus on the annoying washing machine, say) the passive sounds far more natural. It does here. Sophia, not the washing machine, is the protagonist. Read some good fiction (Perry, Cussler, Francis ...) and, on the second reading (don't waste the first on analysis), look out for all the seamlessly integrated passive uses you missed the first time round. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 5 '13 at 10:30
  • You're being told right now, that even at risk of imprisonment, offering violence to those who cast blanket aspersions upon the passive voice is much better than following their advice. You don't need to actually punch them (but how's that for "active"?), you just don't need to follow their advice either. Barring 18/19th C objections to double auxiliaries (only with one form of the passive, and we don't have the passival any more to use instead) or 20th C castration anxiety at the word passive, there's nearly as many times to rewrite active to passive, as passive to active. – Jon Hanna Feb 5 '13 at 12:54
  • "better to turn sentences to active form" - this advice is given in technical and business writing, simple children's stories and primary/elementary school writing. For the sake of clarity and reduction of complexity. Such a constraint would be unhelpful to writing romantic stories. – Blessed Geek Feb 5 '13 at 13:09
  • @BlessedGeek and apparently it would be unhelpful for writing telling people to avoid the passive voice, since Strunk & White and Orwell both use it quite heavily while doing so. ;) – Jon Hanna Feb 5 '13 at 18:17

It's not always better to use the active voice. However, your sentence can be written as

The rattling sound of her washing machine woke Sophia up.
The rattling sound of Sophia's washing machine woke her up.

(You need to decide where in the sentence it is best to name Sophia)

In the passive sentence, what caused Sophia to wake up is the rattling sound of her washing machine, so that needs to be the subject of an active-voice sentence.

Peter Shor's comment at the linked question is valid and important, and I'm going to add it here:

There is a myth that you should never use the passive voice in good writing, and this is why MS-Word complains. This myth is completely wrong. You should use the passive voice to emphasize the object of a sentence, to make a sentence connect better with the previous or the following sentence, and maybe to vary the structure of your sentences so they aren't all the same (although this shouldn't happen if you use the passive voice when it's needed).

In the example sentence in the question, which is most important and should receive the emphasis? Is it the washing machine [in which case, use the active voice]; or is it Sophia?

I will also add that even if it's Sophia, you could still use the active voice so that you stop mentioning the washing machine as soon as possible and can concentrate on Sophia:

The rattling sound of her washing machine woke Sophia up. Irritated, she buried her head under the pillow and sighed noisily.

  • You are right that the rule "never use the passive voice" is not good advice, but "rarely use it" is good advice. It leaves your sentences feeling weak. Of course weak sentences are not universally bad if that is your rhetorical intent. Nonetheless, there are alternatives. For example, Sophia can get the the head of the sentence with: "Sophia, woken by the rattling of her washing machine, thanked her lucky stars that the infernal machine had reminded her of her early meeting." – Fraser Orr Feb 5 '13 at 21:58

I disagree that using the passive (with Sophie at the front of the sentence and the washing machine at the end) de-emphasizes the washing machine. If this is the first sentence in a story or section, it needs to "connect" to the next sentence; the emphasis at the end is carried over. "Sophie was awakened by the rattling sound of her washing machine. It shouldn't have been making that noise..."

  • I think that's what I edited into my answer 25 minutes ago. – Andrew Leach Feb 5 '13 at 11:07

Sophia woke to the rattling sound of her washing machine.

  • But that's not the same as "woke up by"? Or the difference doesn't really matter? – janoChen Feb 6 '13 at 3:49
  • @janoChen It could be interpretted either way - just as "she woke to the sound of her alarm clock" but also "when she woke, she then heard her washing machine." – bib Feb 6 '13 at 4:07

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