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I am working on a fiction novel and have had difficulties with the passive voice. I feel that in this case the sentence is stronger when the passive voice is used. "Born in a land without justice, sodden with the blood and tears of earlier generations, he lived........"

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But it's not passive voice, not really. You've just elided the subject because it's the subject of multiple clauses.

Let's say your original sentence is:

Born in a land without justice, sodden with the blood and tears of earlier generations, he lived a typical brutal peasant's life.

If you invert the clauses and spell them out, you have:

He lived a typical brutal peasant's life. He was born in a land without justice. The land was sodden with the blood and tears of earlier generations.

What you do have is an ambiguously dangling modifier — you have to read carefully to make sure you see that sodden with the blood and tears of earlier generations is modifying "a land" and not "him."

Passive voice has no actor, no subject. Mistakes were made.

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Passive voice weakens your writing. So you use passive voice when you want your writing weakened. It is not a thing to be avoided, but utilized correctly.

Perhaps after an explosive anger scene where someone threw some books, you could end the scene by saying "The books lay quietly on the floor" as a transition out of the anger without dispelling any of it's energy.

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  1. Use the passive voice when you don't want to implicate anyone directly.

For example:

A person must always be alert so he doesn't cause problems for others.

Contrast that to:

Bill didn't consider the implications of his actions so he pushed the lever up and the rest of the group plummeted into the abyss.

A famous example of passive writing is the cliche:

A fun time was had by all.

That sentence actually says very little that is specific and the "fun time" seems to fall upon people, instead of them doing anything to cause the fun.

  1. The ball was caught.

  2. Bill caught the ball.

The first one has no subject who is taking action. This keeps Bill safe, in case catching the ball is an improper thing to do.

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Rarely, but this is not really passive voice

As Lauren points out, what you have is not really passive voice.

Your sentence is:

Born in a land without justice, sodden with the blood and tears of earlier generations

Written in full with the subject in place, this might be:

Dave was Born in a land without justice, sodden with the blood and tears of earlier generations

In passive voice, you would have:

A land without justice, sodden with the blood and tears of earlier generations was the place of Dave's birth.

Your sentence is active voice, but you've omitted the subject to make it more punchy.

...but to answer your question

When is passive voice acceptable? If you are writing an academic paper, passive voice is de rigueur. It weakens your statements, enabling counter-argument. If you're writing a novel this is usually not the effect you are going for. It's uncommon to find a case where the passive voice is an improvement.

An exception to this might be dialog if you have a scientific character, or a character who talks in riddles.

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