Should passive voice be used or banned?

I submitted an article to a magazine, and the editing came back with this awkward passive voice construction: ” Shopping bags are just one type of plastic film used regularly by Americans.” Ouch.

Someone submitted an article to me that had one particularly awkward paragraph with too many sentences in passive voice. I have trimmed it to bare bones, but it contained all these passives:

It is not forbidden to want to look beautiful, but living an ethical lifestyle is encouraged. Buying clothes is permitted, but you shouldn’t buy clothes you don’t need from a retailer known to oppress its workers.

And I finally had my camera with me when I saw the sign ubiquitous in North Carolina restaurants. It has always made me wonder: if I were an employee there, how am I supposed to get my hands washed? Whom should I get to wash them?

So I thought it would be fun to write a post about avoiding passive voice. Upon further investigation, I can’t do that. Too many other authors over more than a century have devoted really bad writing to that task. 

What is passive voice?

edited page -- passive voice

The manuscript has been edited. Has passive voice been removed?

The English language forms passive voice with an auxiliary verb and a past participle.

Most definitions I have seen say some form of to be plus a past participle, but some form of to get or to become can also form a passive construction.

“A bird flew into a window” is in active voice. “A window was flown into by a bird” is passive. The very awkwardness of that construction leads many grammar mavens to recommend minimal use of passive voice.

Often, active and passive constructions mean the same thing:

Everyone in the school admires Anne’s talent. / Anne’s talent is admired by everyone in the school.

But sometimes turning an active sentence into a passive sentence can alter the meaning. In the following cases, the active construction states a fact and the passive one does not.

Beavers build dams. / Dams are built by beavers. (Not all dams are built by beavers.)

Many people do not support Trump. / Trump is not supported by many people. (Many people do support Trump.)

In an active sentence, the subject does something. In a passive sentence, something happens to the subject. It requires a prepositional phrase beginning with by for anyone to know who took the action. (Wow! Three prepositions in a row and Word’s grammar checker has no objection!)

For example: The police officer was ordered to investigate. And who knows, from that sentence, who issued the order?

Bureaucrats, public relations officers, and many others use passive voice to avoid identifying the actor.

Irresponsible abuses of passive voice

Parson Weems' Fable / Grant Wood. passive voice

Lies were told. (Parson Weems’ Fable / Grant Wood, 1939)

Suppose a school board hears that teacher and some of his smoked marijuana together, but not everyone thinks there is enough evidence to investigate further.

By a vote of 5-4, the board decides that the school nurse should inform the police.

The committee report could easily enough describe the meeting in that way, with or without naming the teacher or school board members.

But instead, suppose it reports, “it was decided that the authorities should be informed of the situation”

Who decided? What authorities? Who should inform them? What situation? No one actually does anything in that report. Everyone disappears.

Bureaucratic prose tends to use longer sentences, piling passive on passive:

Several recommendations were made regarding creation of new positions.  The motion was approved after discussion, with the understanding that further recommendations might be made in the future, depending on the success of tonight’s decision.

Again, the statement allows everyone involved in the decision to hide under their desks. Who made the recommendations? For that matter, what did this person (or these people) recommend? By what standard can anyone know how to judge the outcome of the decision as a success or failure? Assuming success, what kind of follow-up recommendations might someone make at some later date?

Bureaucrats and schools of education learn to write such impenetrable prose by osmosis. They seem not to realize that they don’t communicate anything. Perhaps it has become such a habit that they don’t know any better.

On the other hand, people write like that deliberately when they want to make it as hard as possible for anyone to sort out who’s responsible for a decision or action.

Add dishonesty to awkwardness to the reasons we see so many recommendations to avoid using passive voice.

Evading responsibility doesn’t require passive voice

Book damaged beyond repair. passive voice

Damage happened.

Passive voice has gotten such a bad reputation that people complain about passive voice in cases of evading responsibility that use active constructions.

These sentences hide the actor without using passive voice:

  • A struggle ensued.
  • As a result of the shooting, five people died.
  • Mistakes happened.

They don’t tell us who started the struggle or who else was involved. We don’t know who shot and killed five people. We don’t know who made mistakes, what kind of mistakes, or their consequences. Various people have taken to print, social media, or the airwaves to use similar sentences as examples of passive voice.

Neither does some form of to be indicate passive voice. In a 2008 presidential debate, Barak Obama said, “There will be setbacks and false starts.” A blogger used that sentence as an example of how Obama used passive voice to evade responsibility. But without a past participle, it’s not in passive voice.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie became embroiled in the scandal over the bridge closure, he said, “I was blindsided.” That’s not passive, either; “blindside” is not a verb, so “blindsided” can’t be a past participle. But the sentence neatly avoids responsibility for either Christie or any particular aides.

In defense of passive voice

Nurse and patient -- passive voice

Army nurse comforts child after surgery for broken leg. Or the child is comforted.

Besides bemoaning how easily people abuse passive voice to evade responsibility, grammar mavens have other objections. It’s dull, static, feeble writing, they say.

By implication, we should suppose sentences in active voice must be interesting and strong.

But consider the early life of circus elephants a century ago: they were taken from their mothers, transported from their native land, sold to the circus, tied to a stake, and trained to perform tricks.

Could changing everything to active voice possibly make that description any more vivid?

Hardly.

It would require naming an agent for each action. And doing so would deflect attention away from the elephant.

Now let’s consider another sentence: The big dog went down the stairs very fast. Would anyone consider that a lively and strong sentence? I hope not, but it uses active voice.

Use passive voice if

  • You don’t know the actor: Dogs were domesticated in prehistoric times
  • In context, the actor doesn’t matter: The latest iPhone will be unveiled next week.
  • The actor is not the subject of the rest of the paragraph: Say “Lincoln was assassinated” rather than “Booth assassinated Lincoln” in a paragraph about Lincoln.
  • You want to call attention to the action and not the actor: Butterflies were released after the Easter service.
  • It can make your prose sing.

English language has passive voice because sometimes we need to use it. Through carelessness or dishonesty, many people misuse it. Only in the 20th century did anyone start to recommend avoiding it in good writing. Don’t blame passive voice for being misused or overused!

Additional reading: Fear and loathing of the English passive / Geoffrey K. Pullum, Language and Communication 102 (vol. 26, no. 2, June 2010), 34-44.

Photo credits:
Sign about hand washing. My photo
Edited manuscript. Some rights reserved by Nic McPheel.
Parson Weems’ Fable. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Damaged book. Some rights reserved by Larry Wentzel
Nurse and patient. Some rights reserved by MyFuture.com


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