What’s wrong with the passive voice?

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has joined the Campaign Against the Passive Voice. He follows in the footsteps of Strunk and White (whose section on the passive voice, while more nuanced than many people recognise, is calamitously misleading) and of George Orwell (who complained about the passive while using it extensively himself, even in the same sentence as his complaint).

The campaign isn’t wholly wrong, but it goes too far and it doesn’t properly understand the problem. The passive voice is often better than the active, and its overuse is usually a symptom of something else.

What’s the difference?

Roughly: in the active voice, the agent performing the action is the grammatical subject of the sentence and the recipient of the action is the grammatical object. The passive voice switches this around, making the recipient of the action the grammatical subject and the agent the object. Passive verbs are formed by adding the appropriate variety of ‘be’ (or ‘get’) to the past participle of the main verb.

Here are a few active/passive examples; in each, the agent is in bold and the grammatical subject is underlined:

Active: The cat sat on the mat.

Passive: The mat was sat on by the cat.

Active: One of you will betray me.

Passive: I will be betrayed by one of you.

Active: Gove is criticising the passive voice.

Passive: The passive voice is getting criticised by Gove.

The “by somebody” identifying the agent is inessential (more on that below), but you can generally tell a passive verb by that fact that “by somebody” would fit after it.

The active voice, making the agent and the subject the same, generally feels more direct and lively. It follows an intuitive ‘who did what to whom’ storytelling sequence. Plus it’s a couple of words shorter.

When you look at examples in isolation like this, it’s easy to think that of course the active voice is better. But the passive has its uses.

Reasons to be passive

One obvious thing you can do with the passive (but not the active) is to omit the agent. This is very handy if the agent is unknown, irrelevant, too obvious to mention or too contentious to mention:

This sword was forged in the 1300s.

The house has recently been repainted.

Shoplifters will be prosecuted.

Your last bill was not paid on time.

This technique can also make a passive sentence much shorter and punchier than any active equivalent if there are several actions with several agents but one common recipient:

Yesterday I got dumped, fired, burgled and urinated on.

The passive voice can also help improve the flow of a piece of writing.

Other things being equal, it tends to be a good idea to begin a sentence with something you’ve already mentioned. This helps to ease the reader through your narrative without making them wonder why you’ve suddenly introduced some new thing with no initial context. You can introduce the new thing later in the sentence.

The obvious exception is the opening sentence, where nothing has yet been mentioned and you need to grab your reader’s attention, in which case it may be best to open with the most interesting thing.

Because the passive voice lets you switch the order of agent and recipient, it can help with this. Compare these two fantasy news stories, identical except that the first has no passive verbs and the second has one in each sentence:

Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a drug that cures AIDS. Clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS have shown it to work. Just three injections completely cured all 900 of them. The healthcare regulator is likely to approve the drug for clinical use within months.

A drug that cures AIDS has been discovered by scientists at the University of Birmingham. It has been shown to work by clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS. All 900 of them were completely cured by just three injections. The drug is likely to be approved by the healthcare regulator for clinical use within months.

The first (active) version will immediately hook you only if you’re a fan of that fine university, while the second (passive) version gets straight to the point. After that, in the first version, every following sentence begins with a previously unmentioned subject: “Clinical trials”, “Just three injections” and “The healthcare regulator” – the effect is a bit disjointed. But in the second version, every following sentence begins with a subject that has already been mentioned: “It” (i.e. the drug), “All 900 of them” and “The drug” again. The previously unmentioned things are then introduced explicitly in relation to the familiar.

The second has greater coherence and flow, with its sentences more tightly tied to each other. It’s still hardly brilliant writing, but it’s better than the first – thanks to the passive voice.

Bad passives and the indirect way to fix them

So the passive voice can be good. But it can also be bad, when the reasons for using it don’t apply and when its strengths become weaknesses. Gove and the rest have spotted a genuine problem, even though they go too far when they don’t qualify their advice, and even though they mistake a symptom for a cause.

Corporate writing, in particular, overuses the passive. Here’s an example, from the staff handbook of the workplace of, um, a friend of mine; passive verbs underlined:

In the event of additional hotel accommodation being required over and above that which has been booked, this should be done by telephoning the Travel team.

It’s horribly stuffy, and its use of passive verbs (three in one sentence) is part of that. But the passive voice is not the real cause of the stuffiness. The real problem is that this sentence is haunted. It’s haunted by the unmentioned person who needs accommodation: the reader; you. This sentence is all about you, but you’re not in it.

Look at the subjects of the passive verbs: “accommodation”, “that which” (i.e. accommodation again), and “this” (some unspecified activity, presumably along the lines of “making arrangements”). All abstractions. No people.

If I make “you” the subject throughout (and change as little else as possible), this happens:

In the event that you require additional hotel accommodation over and above that which you have booked, you should do this by telephoning the Travel team.

My decision about the subject – the lead character – has automatically answered the active/passive question: I’ve had to make the verbs active. The passives were just a symptom of the sentence’s needless inhumanity.

The new version is still poor, but the structure is now basically sound, and a few straightforward swaps and cuts can change it into something somebody might really say:

If you need more hotel accommodation than you have booked, you should arrange it by telephoning the Travel team.

A lot of people seem to think that business writing needs to be formal, impersonal and bordering on the legalistic in order to sound professional, but this just isn’t true.

Finally

There are times when the difference between the active and passive doesn’t matter much. If you’ve been staring at two versions of a sentence for a while, trying to decide which is better, chances are you’ll be fine either way. Pick one and get on with life.

Note: My thinking on this has been strongly shaped by Joseph M Williams’s excellent book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, which is the best practical composition manual I’ve read.

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Comments

  • Stan  On July 2, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Excellent post, Tom. Whenever someone castigates the passive voice without acknowledging its uses, I assume they (a) haven’t really thought about it or don’t know how to think about it, and (b) are relying on outdated style books, classroom memories, or hearsay, instead of modern descriptive grammars.

    • Tom Freeman  On July 2, 2013 at 12:30 pm

      Thanks Stan. I think you’re right that people can find these things hard to think about. It’s so seductive to look at a few genuinely poor uses of the passive (or whatever) and then conclude that you should generally avoid it. And then there’s a Chinese-whispers process that ossifies the advice into a ban.

      • Stan  On July 2, 2013 at 12:38 pm

        Which is why your post will help, as will other sensible treatments in Williams’ book, Language Log, etc. Given that many people don’t have the time, inclincation or wherewithal to investigate these matters properly, it’s often easier to play it safe by adopting simplistic rules and taboos and avoiding contentious constructions altogether. But a little solid research and common sense go a long way.

  • nigelgrantgel Grant  On July 2, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    Well said, Tom. Basic plain English training tends to hammer passives. Weak writers may then take this proscription and use it to form a repetitive subject-verb-direct object “I did this” and “You did that” style. However, passives are often used (passive) by millions of writers, perhaps unconsciously, as a way of sounding official (whatever that means).

  • ProsWrite  On July 4, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    In my experience, the use of passive voice in corporate writing often stems from writers’ deep-seated fear of using personal pronouns — something many North American English teachers drilled into their students’ heads. Writers end up with complex and awkward style because they are trying to avoid/follow inaccurate “rules” from their past. Note that your handbook example includes no personal pronouns. Plain language training often confuses the tool (passive voice) for the intent of the writer (to mislead). But active voice can be used to mislead readers, too.

    Teaching people to write effectively and efficiently in the workplace requires un-teaching many of these ideas. Especially, the purist attitude toward language! And getting them to focus on the message and its organization first . . . before they start worrying over style and mechanics.

    I present students and trainees with much the same advice about passive use that you included here: http://proswrite.com/2012/06/23/the-video-tutorial-on-active-and-passive-voice/.

  • Dee @ EditorialEyes  On July 5, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Clear and well written, Tom. So often writers are told to avoid passive at all costs by teachers or members of critique groups who don’t have the proper understanding of active and passive voice. Worse, I’ve heard more than one writer talk about never using the word “was”–a quick fix to avoiding passive and cringe-inducingly wrong. Needless to say, I’m bookmarking this post and will be sharing it often!

  • Joy  On July 5, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    There’s a really simple example of when the passive is totally annoying – “mistakes were made.” Take responsibility, folks!!!

  • Kerry  On July 6, 2013 at 3:11 am

    The use of the passive voice is often a little more tactful:

    A mistake has been made….

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