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Learning to Love Passive Voice

Many well-meaning writing instructors and English teachers have taught their students to scorn the passive voice. “Never use passive voice. The only good writing is active writing,” they say. They point to Strunk and White, who have trouble correctly identifying the passive voice, and to George Orwell, who actually said not to use the passive voice when you could use the active and who used a fair bit of passive voice himself.

Passive voice isn’t the evil so many proclaim it to be. It’s actually quite useful in its place, just as with any other writing tool. The trick is correctly identifying the passive voice and knowing when to use it.

Recognizing Passive Voice

A sentence is in the active voice when the subject does the action of the verb. That is, the subject is the actor:

Duncan walked the dog yesterday with Anna.

The verb in the above sentence is walked. Now ask, who is doing the walking? Duncan. The subject of the sentence is doing the action of the sentence; therefore, the sentence is in the active voice.

A sentence is in the passive voice when the subject receives the action of the verb:

The dogs were walked by Duncan and Anna yesterday.

The verb is were walked. Ask: who is doing the walking? This time the answer, Duncan and Anna, are objects of the preposition by. But the subject of the sentence is the dogs. The dogs are receiving the action; they are being walked. Thus, the sentence is in the passive voice.

There’s also something called the truncated passive voice:

The dilapidated buildings were torn down.

Again, spot the verb: were torn down. The subject of the sentence, the dilapidated buildings, is receiving the action. But who is doing the tearing down? The sentence doesn’t say. When you don’t know the actor in a passive voice sentence, you’re dealing with the truncated passive voice.

Why do so many people have such a hard time identifying passive voice?

Geoffrey Pullum points out in “The Passive in English” on Language Log that a sentence in the passive voice always has a participle as its main verb, usually a past participle, such as motivated. Participles don’t have tense, but a sentence needs one. One way to give a passive voice sentence tense is to add a linking verb (or what linguists call the copula). English uses a form of to be for the linking verb—the were in were motivated.

Instructors, writers, and editors then hypercorrect. They see a linking verb and immediately declare the sentence passive voice. But look at the difference:

We were motivated to come inside by the storm clouds.

We were interested in coming inside.

In the first example, who or what were motivated? The storm clouds. The first example is in the passive voice. In the second example, who or what were interested? We. The second example is in the active voice. The mere presence of were does not mean the sentence is in the passive voice.

The passive voice doesn’t always use the linking verb to create tense, either. Sometimes verbs other than to be are used to create the tense, such as come, get, go, have, hear, make, need, and see. Pullum offers some examples of passive voice that we might not instantly recognize as such:

Mary got picked on at the demonstration yesterday.

The problems with the building went unlooked at by the owners for a long time.

This software comes pre-installed by the manufacturers.

If you spot the verb and then ask who is doing that action, you’ll see that in none of these sentences is the subject of the sentence doing the action. We can’t just stop at the verb or part of the verb and declare a sentence passive or active. We have to determine who is doing the action and who is receiving it.

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Using Passive Voice

Once you correctly identify the passive voice in a sentence, you then have to determine if it belongs there. The passive voice is a natural function of English, and as such it has its uses. If it didn’t, we would stop using it completely, just as some well-meaning teachers would have us do.

Remember earlier, when we didn’t know who was tearing down the buildings? When you don’t know the actor, use the passive voice. To make the sentence active, we would have to identify the actor:

Don’s Demolition tore down the dilapidated buildings.

Certainly as copyeditors, we could try to find out who tore down the buildings, but perhaps no one knows—at least no one you or your writer could talk to. It could be, too, that the fact of the buildings being torn down is more important than who did it. Maybe readers don’t care that Don’s Demolition tore down the buildings, only that the buildings were finally taken down. When the receiver of the action is more important than the doer, use the passive voice.

There are times as well when you don’t want to mention the actor, such as when giving negative feedback. For example, when I was teaching copyediting, I tended to write comments like “Too many errors were introduced into this article” on student assignments instead of “You introduced too many errors into this article.” The student knows who introduced the errors into the article. It can be easier to accept strong criticism when it doesn’t sound quite so accusing. Although I don’t put everything in passive voice, I do tend to put at least some criticism in it.

Passive voice also offers an opportunity for a break. Active voice moves the reader along quickly. After several sentences in the active voice, readers need a rest to process what they’ve read. Passive voice provides that rest.

And here’s one more reason to use the passive voice: to sound objective. Scientific, business, and news writing will all use passive voice when they want to sound objective.

Understanding Passive Voice’s Limitations

The passive voice is wordier and, generally speaking, less direct. If you’re editing a piece and need to cut words or you’re trying to help the writer be more direct, try moving from passive to active voice. Be warned, though: you may not want to correct every instance of passive voice. Keep enough to maintain the writer’s voice, ensure variety in sentences, and give readers a rest from the active voice. Pick and choose what to change.

The passive voice can also point to the wrong actor. Part of a copyeditor’s job is to clarify, and you may be able to do so by making a sentence active. Compare these two sentences from the Gregg Reference Manual:

Two computers were reported stolen over the weekend by the head of corporate security.

The head of corporate security reported that two computers were stolen over the weekend.

The first sentence might lead the CEO to fire the head of security. The second sentence makes it clear that the head of security is doing his job, not stealing from his employer.

In The Copyeditor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn reminds us that the passive voice is a great place to find dangling modifiers. Moving to the active voice generally fixes the problem. From Einsohn:

Driving down the street, the Empire State Building was seen.

Driving down the street, we saw the Empire State Building.

Loving Passive Voice 

How much should editors focus on finding passive voice? Studies show that active voice is used more often than the passive, so focusing too much on the passive could result in removing it when it has a purpose in the copy.

While editing a sentence for voice, consider your goal: are you speeding things up and getting straight to the point? Edit and replace with active voice. Looking to slow things down or sound more impartial? Passive voice is the way to go. 

A helpful tip is to zero in on the passive voice when it seems overwhelming to you. Einsohn says it nicely in her book:

Copyeditors are expected to help authors avoid the overuse or awkward use of the passive, but this effort should be tempered. For readers, the judiciously placed passive construction can provide welcome relief from an onslaught of sentences in the active voice.

This article originally published in the August–September 2011 edition of Copyediting newsletter.

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