Grammar Usage

When passive isn’t wimpy

Q: As an academic I do a lot of writing and editing. Do you have an opinion on the use of active versus passive voice?

A: In general, the active voice is stronger and more direct. But don’t rule out the passive voice entirely. In some circumstances passive verbs are more effective. It all depends on what you’re writing.

We’re sure you’ve heard or read all the familiar arguments against the use of the passive. It’s often weaker or less forceful; it can sound wishy-washy; it omits the agent of an action and thus conceals the perpetrator, and so on.

In fact, many usage commentators issue blanket indictments against the passive voice. But they go too far.

Passive verbs can be used quite effectively by a skilled writer, and they have more forms than people think. Pat discusses the use of the passive voice in her book Words Fail Me. Here’s what she says in its favor:

“As for passive verbs, before condemning them I’ll offer a word or two in their defense. You might prefer them in situations like these:

“• When it’s not important to say who did something. (The merchandise was stowed in the cargo hold.)

“• When you’d rather not say who’s responsible. (My homework has been lost.)

“• When you don’t know whodunit. (Norman’s manuscript was stolen.)

“• When you want to delay the punch line. (Julia was done in by a spinach soufflé.)”

Pat covers much of the same ground in Woe Is I, where she says the passive voice is handy when you “want to place the one performing the action at the end of the sentence for emphasis or surprise.”

Here’s her example of this usage: “The gold medal in the five-hundred-meter one-man bobsled competition has been won by a six-year-old child!”

The passive is also appropriate, she writes, when it’s irrelevant who performed an action, as in these sentences: “Hermione has been arrested. Witherspoon is being treated for the gunshot wound.” There’s no need to know “who put the cuffs on Hermione, or who’s stitching up Witherspoon.”

So the choice of which voice to use—active or passive—should depend on what you’re writing and on your individual style. Certainly active verbs are more forceful most of the time. But not always. This is a judgment you have to make for yourself.

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