In my most recent post, I gave you some tips about using passive voice. Today I’d like to dig deeper by answering two questions. Why do so many professional writers use passive voice – and – is it helpful?
I can answer the second question in just a few words – no, passive voice isn’t usually helpful. Just the opposite: it can be awkward and pompous. “The report was presented by John” (passive) is a clumsy way to say “John presented the report” (active voice).
But if that’s true, why do so many professional writers use it? The reason may surprise you: magical thinking about language.
Many people (perhaps you!) believe that words have magical powers. If a baseball pitcher has a no-hitter going, many announcers won’t talk about what’s going on for fear of jinxing him.
You’ve probably heard the expression “speak of the devil” – you’re talking about a friend, and suddenly there she is, in front of you.
My husband and I sometimes fall into this kind of magical thinking. He’ll casually remark how pleased he is that our car is holding up so well. Then we’ll both look at each other and say “Uh-oh!” We’ve just cast a sinister magic spell that’s going to result in a broken belt or dead battery.
Back to passive voice. Many people (including scientists and police officers) have long been taught that passive voice ensures objectivity and accuracy. So a police officer might write “A man was seen climbing through the window” (passive) rather than “I saw a man climbing through a window” (active voice).
Similarly a scientist might write, “The solution was heated to 100 degrees for approximately five minutes” (passive) rather than “I heated the solution….” (active voice).
If you spend a minute or two thinking about these examples, you can see how ridiculous this reasoning is. A dishonest cop isn’t suddenly going to turn honest because he switches a sentence around. Even if she writes her report in passive voice, she might be lying about that man climbing through the window.
Similarly you can’t have confidence in scientific data just because a scientist is writing in passive voice. Honesty and accuracy are character traits, not writing tricks.
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There’s another reason passive voice is so prevalent in professional writing: OJT (on-the-job training). Young scientists do a lot of reading (as – of course – they should!). They read endless articles written in passive voice. Soon they pick up that habit themselves – and so it’s handed down to generation after generation of scientists.
Police reports have the same problem. Police academies endlessly remind cadets to write their reports in active voice. Yay! But then those cadets graduate and get hired by agencies where everyone is still writing in passive voice. Guess what our newbie officer soon starts doing? Using passive voice!
For the same reason, you often see passive voice in business emails, correspondence, and reports.
You can break the chain! Always, always write in active voice unless you have a very good reason not to (you don’t want to call attention to a mistake, or you want to shift the emphasis in a sentence).