In Defense of the Passive Voice

By Erin Nelsen

Passive voice: one of the most commonly vilified, frequently bemoaned, and terminally misunderstood constructions in English. Yes, it’s true—the active voice is more vigorous, more forceful, more natural, and simpler in many cases. Sentences like “The book was put down by Mary” or “The dog was walked by my brother yesterday” make sensitive listeners shudder. But passive voice has its place. Here are a few situations where I’m willing to fight for it:

  1. When the focus is on the action or the effect, not on the actor. “The mail was delivered at three o’clock sharp.” “The hydrangeas were watered daily.”
  2. When the actor is aggregate or unknown, or there is no clear actor responsible: “The building was destroyed in 1923.” “These markings were made by someone with a knowledge of Ogham.”
  3. When the construction emphasizes something you wish to emphasize (by placing the agent at the end of the sentence): “The terrible crime was committed by none other than the esteemed Judge Jones”; or conversely helps “play it pianissimo*” (by refusing to assign direct responsibility): “Your invitation has been declined.”

Passive voice is also common and sometimes acceptable in rulespeak (“The passive voice should be used when . . .” ) and other situations when the writer wants to adopt an air of authority. But beware—passivity does not automatically confer credibility on the writer. In fact, it can detract from your credibility:

  1. When it obscures your meaning and bogs down your rhythm. Passive sentences tend to use more words than active ones, so watch out for long, involved, convoluted Frankensentences.
  2. When it’s a disguise for the writer’s insecurity or uncertainty. You will not fool anyone by saying “Conclusions have been reached that . . .” or “This argument was found somewhat unsatisfactory.” These constructions are the refuge of fearful, forgetful high-school essayists who can’t remember who concluded what and are afraid to take responsibility for an opinion. Do your research and own your observations. Say, “I find this argument unsatisfactory,” or tell us who does.
  3. When you’re using it too frequently. The passive voice should be an occasional deviation from writing in the active voice, not vice versa. Excessive passive voice will dry out nearly any topic: compare “He whipped the car around the turn, pressing the gas pedal into the sticky floor mat,” to “The car was whipped around the turn, and the pedal was pressed into the sticky floor mat by the driver.” The second version is dull, confusing, and impersonal, and it begs for superfluous adverbs to liven it up. But “The car was whipped quickly” is no better way to begin.

So: While the passive voice is not recommended for habitual use, it proves useful and often elegant in the right context. If all your sentences contain the word by, you may want to reconsider. But don’t force a sentence into active voice if its natural and proper realm is the passive.

*Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer (New York: Athaneum, 1965), 15. TIP: This is an excellent book (reprinted in 1995), and if you can get your hands on it, do so.

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One Response to “In Defense of the Passive Voice”

  1. Gabrielle October 7, 2008 at 9:46 am #

    Yes! Thank you! I just helped my husband revise an essay for his Communications class wherein his professor had marked EVERY passive sentence there was. There were only three of them. They were all used correctly. The professor seemed to think passive voice in all its instances is bad grammar. It is a legitimate part of our grammar.

    For example: He was not able to tell them how he felt about being enhanced.

    To make that active, we had to change it to “…how he felt about his enhancements.” or “…how he felt about his parents having him enchanced as a child.”

    One adds 6 more words and the other loses the nuance. The longer one gets that nuance but does it in a clunky way. Passive was the right choice because the subject was acted upon and it was that event that he had feelings about.

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