By Erin Nelsen
Passive voice: one of the most commonly vilified, frequently bemoaned, and terminally misunderstood constructions in English. Yes, itâ€™s trueâ€”the active voice is more vigorous, more forceful, more natural, and simpler in many cases. Sentences like â€œThe book was put down by Maryâ€ or â€œThe dog was walked by my brother yesterdayâ€ make sensitive listeners shudder. But passive voice has its place. Here are a few situations where Iâ€™m willing to fight for it:
- When the focus is on the action or the effect, not on the actor. â€œThe mail was delivered at three oâ€™clock sharp.â€ â€œThe hydrangeas were watered daily.â€
- When the actor is aggregate or unknown, or there is no clear actor responsible: â€œThe building was destroyed in 1923.â€ â€œThese markings were made by someone with a knowledge of Ogham.â€
- When the construction emphasizes something you wish to emphasize (by placing the agent at the end of the sentence): â€œThe terrible crime was committed by none other than the esteemed Judge Jonesâ€; or conversely helps â€œplay it pianissimo*â€ (by refusing to assign direct responsibility): â€œYour invitation has been declined.â€
Passive voice is also common and sometimes acceptable in rulespeak (â€œThe passive voice should be used when . . .â€ ) and other situations when the writer wants to adopt an air of authority. But bewareâ€”passivity does not automatically confer credibility on the writer. In fact, it can detract from your credibility:
- 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.
- When itâ€™s a disguise for the writerâ€™s insecurity or uncertainty. You will not fool anyone by saying â€œConclusions have been reached that . . .â€ or â€œThis argument was found somewhat unsatisfactory.â€ These constructions are the refuge of fearful, forgetful high-school essayists who canâ€™t remember who concluded what and are afraid to take responsibility for an opinion. Do your research and own your observations. Say, â€œI find this argument unsatisfactory,â€ or tell us who does.
- When youâ€™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 â€œHe whipped the car around the turn, pressing the gas pedal into the sticky floor mat,â€ to â€œThe car was whipped around the turn, and the pedal was pressed into the sticky floor mat by the driver.â€ The second version is dull, confusing, and impersonal, and it begs for superfluous adverbs to liven it up. But â€œThe car was whipped quicklyâ€ 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 donâ€™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.
Subscribe To Beneath The Cover's Blog
Join the many publishers and authors who already get their updates sent straight to their inbox. Enter your email address below: