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Passive Voice: Always Bad?

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 4, Number 1, 2007, page 22)

Most people who pay heed to the grammar check feature of their word-processing software know that passive voice is basically—how shall we say? —bad. But not many know why it’s bad, or when it’s bad, or even, for that matter, what it really is. Such are the mists of uncertainty that shroud the passive voice—mists we will attempt to part, for as some wise person must have (or should have) once said, it’s best to know what we condemn before we condemn it.

What it is

In exploring what passive voice is, let’s clear up what it isn’t. Passive voice does not mean lacking action. The sentence You are a remarkable juggler conveys no action, but it isn’t in passive voice. Conversely, the sentence You have been robbed by a consummate con artist does convey action, but it is in passive voice.

Passive voice refers specifically to how the verb is worded. Only transitive verbs—verbs that take objects—can be expressed in passive voice as well as in active voice, their more usual form. Active voice puts the elements of a sentence into a logical order, with the originator of the action coming first: Actor + Action + Recipient or Product of Action.

(Voice) (Actor) (Action) (Recipient of action)
ACTIVE The castaway sailor discovered the golden-haired mermaid.

Passive voice reverses the order of these elements: Recipient or Product of Action + Action + Actor.

(Voice 2) (Recipient of action) (Action) (Actor)
PASSIVE The golden-haired mermaid was discovered by the castaway sailor.

With passive voice, the actor, or the originator of the action, appears at the end of the sequence. In fact, sometimes the actor disappears from the picture entirely.

(Voice 3) (Recipient of action) (Action)
PASSIVE The golden-haired mermaid was discovered.

Another misconception about passive voice is that it’s related to past tense. This belief may stem from the fact that with passive voice, the main verb (the one that carries the meaning) is always in the past participle form. Past participle equals past tense, right?

Not with passive voice constructions. The tense is carried not by the main verb but by the auxiliary verb to be, which is always the first part of a passive voice verb. Passive voice, like active, can occur in any tense: past (was discovered), present (is discovered), future (will be discovered), present perfect (has been discovered), present progressive (is being discovered) and so forth.

Why it’s bad

"The passive voice puts the cart before the horse: the object of the action first, then the harnessing verb, running backwards, then the driver forgotten, and the whole contraption at a standstill." So writes Sheridan Baker (who can always be counted on for a colourful quip) in my battered fifth edition of The Practical Stylist.

This backwardness is part of the problem. Because passive voice inverts the logical progression of ideas, it can make those ideas hard to follow, especially when they are complex or technical. Another strike against passive voice is the wordiness that inevitably accompanies it. These weaknesses combine to form overgrown thickets of prose, which we can prune considerably by converting to active voice. Consider this atrocious example:

  • PASSIVE  Special training is required with respect to the regulations by those responsible for shipping dangerous goods.
  • ACTIVE  Those responsible for shipping dangerous goods require special training in the regulations.

A further pitfall of passive voice is that because it sometimes obscures or omits the actor, it can lead to ambiguity:

  • PASSIVE  The LCD projector that had been hooked up by the inexperienced office assistant was then given a trial run.

In its roundabout way, this sentence does tell us who hooked up the projector, but it doesn’t tell us who gave the trial run. Some readers will assume that the office assistant performed this action as well; others will (rightly) question whether it was that person or someone else. The second passive verb, was given, leaves us guessing.

When it’s bad

So when is passive voice bad? "Most of the time" is the best answer, which means most of the time we should prefer active voice. This advice applies even to scientific and technical writers, who are often staunch defenders of the passive voice, which they see as eliminating people from their writing, stripping away any taint of subjectivity and leaving the objective facts and findings. Here’s the kind of sentence such writers are fond of:

  • PASSIVE  The findings of the survey will be published in the next issue of TechnoGeek Quarterly.

True, we may not want to say who conducted the survey or who will publish the findings, but there are ways of downplaying the human without resorting to passive voice. Here’s one option:

  • ACTIVE  The findings of the survey will appear in the next issue of TechnoGeek Quarterly.

When it’s good

It’s easy to become dogmatic about passive voice, to thump our desks and insist on purging every instance of it from our writing. Indeed, some writers go to extraordinary lengths to do just that, with little regard to context or flow. Truly understanding passive voice means acknowledging that there’s room for it in clear writing—if we use it sparingly, and for a particular effect.

As we’ve seen, passive voice puts emphasis on the recipient or product of an action, which is sometimes precisely where we want the emphasis to be. If, for instance, we’re partway into a profile of our neighbourhood pub, we might not want to write Jeremiah Jessop and Sons renovated the pub in 1997 because it yanks the focus away from the pub. In this case a passive construction serves better: The pub was renovated in 1997.

Passive voice is also useful when we don’t know the identity of the person or thing performing the action. A reporter covering an act of arson would do well to write The fire was started sometime around midnight to convey that the action was deliberate but the actor is (as yet) unknown. Passive voice is similarly appropriate when we don’t care who or what is doing the action: A flag will be raised in honour of the occasion.

What to do

Writing, no matter how we dissect it, remains an art, not a science. For that reason, it’s pointless to prescribe some ideal ratio of passive to active voice. What’s more practical is to make active voice your default setting: use it as a matter of course, switching to passive only when you have a persuasive stylistic reason to do so.

For more on the many cons, and occasional pros, of passive voice:

  1. [link no longer available] (University of North Carolina)
  2. (Purdue University)