Welcome to the GWN blog! Today I have Jim Cort talking about passive voice.
There’s no question that the prime whipping boy of English grammar is the passive voice. “Avoid the passive voice,” the writing manual says. “Never use the passive where you can use the active,” says George Orwell. Well, what’s the big problem? What’s so bad about the passive voice, anyhow?
Let’s find out.
First of all, we need to understand how an English sentence is put together. The normal word order for a sentence in English is: subject, verb, object. We can put this another way: actor, action, and thing acted upon. This is known as the active voice. Here’s an example: I ate the pizza.
A sentence in the passive voice is arranged: object, verb, subject. Or, again: thing acted upon, action, actor. Like this: The pizza was eaten by me. So, here’s the first stumbling block: the passive voice takes the normal word order in a sentence and stands it on its head. It’s cumbersome.
Next, let’s do a simple word count. The active sentence has four words. The passive sentence has six words. So the passive sentence takes more words to say the same thing. Two extra words may not seem like a lot, but look at as a percentage. The passive sentence is fifty percent longer but conveys the same information.
Now, consider the verbs. In the passive sentence, the short, strong verb eat has been replaced by its weaker past participle eaten, and hobbled with the auxiliary verb was. It’s a less forceful, less direct way of speaking. And remember the paradox of helping verbs: The more you help your verb, the weaker it becomes.
When we graduate to complex sentences and more complicated ideas, we start to see how passive constructions can do some real mischief to the clarity and ease of reading we want:
This handbook should in no manner be construed as a fixed or binding contract between the Company and you, and its provisions can be considered as no more than general summaries of the benefits, work rules, and policies they address. No reliance should be placed on existing policies in making your determination to accept or continue employment with the Company.
This a lot to slog through. The sentences are so long and so convoluted, that it’s hard to keep things straight in your head as you go along. Also, it’s a real challenge figuring out who’s doing what. Things that happen in the passive voice are like acts of God or forces of Nature—they just happen.
So, if the passive voice is so nasty, why do we keep it around? Why hasn’t it become extinct long ago? The plain truth is the passive voice does have its uses. Here are a few instances where you might not want to resist the passive:
1. For variety. A sentence in the passive every now and then adds variety to your writing. It breaks up the monotony and keeps up the reader’s interest. Just think of it as a strong spice like cayenne or cumin—a little goes a long way.
2. For emphasis. As we mentioned, the passive voice describes an action as if it were an act of God, or a condition that has existed for all time. Because of this, the passive is useful for setting policy or laying down the law: Neckties will be worn in this area. That’s it. It’s carved in stone. No room for argument.
3. For evasive action. Since the passive can describe an action without identifying the actor, it’s useful for writing about something you don’t quite fully understand yourself. (Not that this is a good practice, but we can’t walk the straight and narrow all the time.) It’s also handy for delivering bad news—you can admit that something bad happened without actually confessing to it: Mistakes were made.
Generally speaking, however, you’re better off steering clear of the passive. Review what you’ve written and look for forms of the word be–is, are, was, were, has been, had been–coupled with a verb form. This is a warning flag for the passive voice. Consider if these sentences might read better in the active voice: subject, verb, object. Most of the time, I think you’ll find they will
Jim Cort has been writing since dirt was invented. His novel The Lonely Impulse is available from Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/337106
Cindy here again!
Great information, Jim! Thanks for being here today.