Passive voice is hated by grammarians.

Passive voice is evil!

From Sherry Roberts’s 11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business, in the 7th way, “Be Active”:

A sentence written in the active voice is the straight-shooting sheriff who faces the gunslinger proudly and fearlessly. It is honest, straightforward; you know where you stand.

Active: The committee will review all applications in early April.

A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

Passive: In early April, all applications will be reviewed by the committee.

…or is it?

In truth, the passive is very often exactly the right way to frame a clause in a particular context, and all competent authors use passives frequently. The people who recommend against it use it themselves, even while talking about how you should not use it. For example, in the act of explaining that you should “Use the active voice” because it is “more direct and vigorous than the passive”, William Strunk and E. B. White assert that “Many a tame sentence . . . can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice” (see section 14 of their book The Elements of Style). Their sentence defies their warning; it contains an instance of the passive voice itself (can be made lively and emphatic). They then proceed to give four examples together with illustrations of how to improve them “by substituting a transitive in the active voice”, but only one illustrates the passive (it is not quite clear whether they thought all four were passives), and for one of them, At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard, they propose the replacement The cock’s crow came with dawn, which (since came is intransitive) does not have a transitive in the active voice!

Both links above eventually fight in favor of the much-abused passive voice. Is passive voice evil? If you believe English teachers and style books, you will say (at least) that passive voice is weak and active voice is strong. …but are they correct?

I would argue that passive voice is a useful tool in writing, but it needs to be used sparingly. (Ah-ha!) If passive voice was good enough for the Holy Spirit in both Greek and Hebrew, it’s good enough for me in English.

An author does need to be intentional in using the passive voice. He should use it in such a way to stress the receiver of an action or to heighten tension. He could use it to convey powerlessness. Or, perhaps it can be used simply to offer variety.

Of course, I suspect others will disagree! (Go ahead, comment. Let’s talk!)

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6 thoughts on “Passive voice is hated by grammarians.

  1. I am one of those who earnestly encourage active voice! I think what’s missing here, what has gone unsaid (HA!) is:

    PASSIVE VOICE is irritating or uninteresting to the reader in cases where ACTIVE VOICE would be more proper.

    Pacing is very important in the telling of a story (or in any communication whatever). I think that a good writer knows when his pacing might be too driven, and chooses to pull back a little bit with some passive voice to allow a reader to “catch his breath.”

    I pulled some books off my shelf and compared a few pages. A story that is driven and action-packed eschews passive voice. In more emotional or cerebral fiction, passive voice is employed to lessen the impact, inviting the reader to chew on the concepts without a jarring rush to the next scene.

    I still say that replacing active with passive is far more disrupting to the reader than replacing passive voice with active.

  2. Passive voice just another tool in the grammar tool box. However, you should always use the proper tools. Proper tool usage is the difference between a hack of a handyman and a professional craftsman.

  3. One thing that I’ve personally noted, because it’s been noted by a lot of professional writers and writing teachers, is that passive voice often stands out. In a scene where active voice is appropriate, a person rarely will notice that it is using active voice, but they will notice when it’s passive, and it becomes a distraction. If your reader is becoming distracted, then you’ve lost him. So, to avoid such distraction, be careful to default to active voice and only pull out the passive when it’s the right time.

  4. @Mike: “PASSIVE VOICE is irritating or uninteresting to the reader in cases where ACTIVE VOICE would be more proper.”

    Agreed! The opposite, I would hold, is also true: Active voice is irritating or uninteresting to the reader in cases where passive voice would be more proper. As I mention in the post, active should still usually be the default, but to say that it is wrong to use passive is far too strong.

    So why hate on a voice that is so useful?

    And in fact, to say that passive voice is wrong is in itself wrong, unless you’d like to attack the Holy Spirit. He used passive voice quite a bit in both Hebrew and Greek. In fact, to use active voice alone in theology leads to wrong doctrine! “Man is purely passive in conversion.” That sentence, in and of itself, does not contain a passive verb. However, “Man is converted by the Holy Spirit using the means of grace” is a good sentence that puts man where he should be: purely passive.

    Again, in modern fiction and literature, I agree that active voice is the standard. That does not mean that passive voice should be outlawed!

  5. I agree with Kenneth. And Luke. It should be used as a tool to better your writing but not overused or underused. It’s just another part or grammar and literature.

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