As we mentioned in our previous post, the passive voice is a grammatical voice, not a matter of tone or passivity in the general sense.
Linguists sometimes use the term diathesis to describe the relationship between the verb and the subjects in a sentence and classify verbs as transitive or intransitive.
We’ll use grammatical voice in this post to examine the relationship between the action (also called state) expressed by the verb and the subjects or objects identified.
In the very simplest terms, if the subject is the agent, the verb is in the active voice. But when the subject is the target of the action, the verb is in the passive. You can think of it somewhat like a who-done-it of the verb.
Here’s an example:
The lawyers made an error.
An error was made.
An error was made by the lawyers.
In the second example, “the lawyers” comes after the verb and the sentence is grammatically passive.
Note the first example of the passive voice, we don’t know who or what caused the action. In some types of writing, the author doesn’t want to reveal that information, perhaps to build suspense or to deliberately engender ambiguity. Or the passive is put to use to de-emphasise the subject.
Sometimes it’s necessary to leave out the “doer” of the action. In legal writing or in news reports when that information is deliberately obscured, the passive voice is essential.
In other instances, the passive voice is used because the doer is unknown or just irrelevant. As Geoffrey Nunberg puts it, passive is helpful when individuals are “being laid off, tossed out of their homes, dropped from their medical plans, and generally worked over.”
Writing in this way also removes blame, either because blame isn’t necessary or the writer doesn’t need to or want to acknowledge the agent of the action.
Here are a few examples:
My bike was stolen!
A door was left open.
Agricultural run-off was dumped in the ocean.
Mistakes were made. (A famous example courtesy of Ronald Reagan)
Passive Voice Myths
There are a few myths surrounding the passive voice that despite being incorrect continue to hold sway, let’s take a look at those now.
Myth 1: Any use of the verb “to be” equates to the passive voice.
While it’s true that “to be” can weaken the impact of writing, in and of itself it does not automatically equate to the passive voice. However, when “to be” is combined with a past participle, the passive voice often results.
It is very common for people to think they’re seeing a passive when they see a copula (am, are, be, been, being, is, was, or were) even when other indications of the passive, such as a passive clause complement, are not present.
Myth 2: The passive voice is never in the first-person.
Many people believe that sentences with “I” or “we” are automatically in the active voice. But it is entirely possible to construct a first-person sentence using the passive voice. Consider, “I was smacked by the bat.”
Myth 3: The passive voice is ungrammatical.
It is not ungrammatical and does not break any of the syntactic rules that govern English sentences. Rather, passive hating is a matter of style and stylistic choice. Often these aversions relate to clarity.
Myth 4: Never use the passive voice.
In English writing and in that of many other languages, the passive voice appears frequently. While avoiding the passive might work well in some texts, it is absolutely necessary and even preferable in others.
It is an intrinsic part of our language and as such will always be present. After all, if it was so bad, we wouldn’t continue using it century after century!
If you’d like to learn more about the passive voice and why it holds its rightful place in English writing—and why ignoring the prescriptivist advice of passive naysayers is a good idea—check these interesting and often spicy articles from some of the world’s leading passive defenders.
Worthless grammar edicts from Harvard - Geoff Pullum
How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing - Mark Liberman
Evil passive voice - Arnold Zwicky
Drinking the Strunkian Kool-Aid: victims of page 18 - Geoff Pullum (Kudos to the Pullum for the title here)
Have you been told to Avoid Passive, when and why? We’d love to hear about it, drop us a comment below and let’s chat!