Passive Voice

Last week I had two reminders that passive voice is a controversial topic. A friend gently chided me about a passive voice sentence I’d included in a law enforcement newsletter I’d just sent out. Here’s what he wrote:

Had I been the officer’s supervisor, I would have suggested active voice, from “Richard is enjoying his new job as a school resource officer ” to “Richard enjoys his new job as a school resource officer.”

A few days later, passive voice was the subject of a Grammarly quiz question honoring National Grammar Day. The quiz was designed to determined how fanatical you are about grammar (I scored high). One of the questions asked whether I considered passive voice a) outdated b) acceptable sometimes c) incorrect or d) confusing. I chose b, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

Twice in one week…hmmm. Seems the grammar gods want me to weigh in on passive voice.

So, what is passive voice – and why do writers argue about it?

Whenever you’re writing, you can choose to write in active voice or passive voice. Active voice is much more popular, but passive voice is equally correct.

Passive voice is a grammatical construction that emphasizes the receiver of the action, not the doer. In simple English, passive voice flips sentences around. Take a look at these examples:

Joe threw the ball.  ACTIVE

The ball was thrown by Joe.  PASSIVE

Pam drove me to the mall.  ACTIVE

I was driven to the mall by Pam.  PASSIVE

The first point I need to make is that my friend was wrong: “Richard is enjoying” is still active voice. (Technically it’s called progressive present tense.) Passive voice would be “The new job as school resource officer is enjoyed by Richard.”

Now we’re going to turn to another, more problematic aspect of passive voice. Often it omits the doer completely:

The ball was thrown.  PASSIVE

I was driven to the mall.  PASSIVE

Who threw the ball, and who drove me to the mall? The sentences don’t tell you.

And that’s where today’s topic starts to get interesting – and complicated. Passive voice tends to be impersonal, clumsy, and unnatural – pompous, even. Writing experts generally recommend avoiding it. I’ve run into people who believe that passive voice is always wrong. If you use the grammar checker for Microsoft Word, you’ll receive a warning every time you write a sentence in passive voice.

Passive Voice Is Impersonal

But the impersonality of passive voice can be useful – and that’s why I chose b (“acceptable sometimes”) as my answer for the Grammarly quiz.

Suppose, for example, someone has been leaving dirty dishes in the sink in the break room at work. You’re the supervisor, and you don’t want to name the person – you just want the problem to stop. So you post a sign in the break room that uses passive voice:

Dirty dishes have been left in the sink three times this week.  PASSIVE VOICE

You haven’t accused anyone. Passive voice solves the problem nicely!

But that impersonality can create problems – huge ones. Last October the New York Times published an article about the weak portrayal of slavery in Texas textbooks. Take a look at this sentence:

Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another owner.  PASSIVE VOICE

Who conducted the sales and broke apart the families? There’s no subject in this passive-voice sentence. That impersonality sucks energy out of the sentence. By contrast, notice the power you feel if the same sentence is written in active voice:

Slaveholders often broke families apart by selling a family member to another owner.  ACTIVE VOICE

Here’s what the Times writer said about the way the Texas textbooks presented slavery:

Though we don’t always recognize it, grammatical choices can be moral choices, and these publishers made the wrong ones.

Are you as astounded as I was? When was the last time you heard someone talk about grammar as a moral issue?

Bottom line: If you choose to write a sentence in passive voice, be sure you have a good reason.

Grammatical choices can be moral choices.

Grammatical choices can be moral choices.


8 thoughts on “Passive Voice

  1. Gustavo A. Rodríguez

    Great post, as usual. This is really interesting for people whose first language does not make use of the passive voice as often as English. However, I’d like to clarify something.

    You say:

    “The first point I need to make is that my friend was wrong: “Richard is enjoying” is still active voice. (Technically it’s called progressive present tense.) Passive voice would be “The new job as school resource officer is enjoyed by Richard.””

    Technically, shouldn’t it be “is being enjoyed”?

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    You’re right! But I’m not sure it has to be written that way. I often hear and read similar sentences without the “being” – “The cookie sale is run by the Girl Scout Council.”
    Your comment anticipates a post I’m going to write soon – about the word “being.” It’s a word I dislike and try to avoid – it often gums up sentences, in my experience.
    Thanks for the feedback!

  3. Kelly Pomeroy

    I wish you had pointed out that the choice between active and passive voice is NOT a grammatical issue; it’s a stylistic one. If you use passive voice too much, it weakens your prose, and that is not usually not considered a good thing. But if it’s properly constructed, it’s grammatical, no matter how many times you use it.

  4. Kelly Pomeroy

    I see I did a poor job of proofreading my previous comment. I guess I failed to recheck after the last change I made. What can I say? The little gray cells aren’t the only part of my body that doesn’t work so well anymore.

  5. ballroomdancer Post author

    You’re right, Kelly. I decided not to use red for the passive voice sentences because I didn’t want anyone to get the idea that passive voice is wrong. But I could have been more emphatic in pointing out that writers are free to use passive voice whenever they wish. Thanks!

  6. Kelly Pomeroy

    “… that is not usually not considered a good thing”. I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t notice if the first time around.

  7. ballroomdancer Post author

    I think you’ll be happy to know that I modified the post about passive voice to make the point you suggested. Thanks! You underlined my point that writing should be a collaborative process. We learn from one another.

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