The Bad Reputation of the Passive Voice

by Susan McCloskey |

Readers usually expect the information in a sentence to reach them in this order: the actor first, as the grammatical subject; then the action, as the verb. The active voice meets this expectation, as in the sentence The partners negotiated a new deal. Partners, the grammatical subject, is the actor performing the verb’s action, negotiated.

The passive voice disrupts the usual order. In the sentence A new deal was negotiated by the partners, deal is the subject, but not the actor; it did not negotiate itself. Partners still did that job, but partners has been demoted from the subject of the verb to the object of a lowly preposition.

This difference hardly seems to warrant the bad reputation of the passive voice. In certain circumstances, after all, we can’t easily do without it:

*When we can identify the action, but not the actor, as in The winning lottery ticket was left on Sheila’s desk. (The passive was left signals that we don’t know who left the ticket.)

*When the actor is irrelevant, as in Sheila’s new Jaguar was delivered yesterday morning. (With such a car in the garage, who cares which dealer put it there? Probably not Sheila.)

*When we want to be diplomatic. It may be kinder to observe that Jaguars have been known to be high-maintenance cars than to write that Sheila spends most of her lottery winnings maintaining her Jaguar.

So why do editors rail against the passive voice? The problem begins with its thoughtless use. We set out in the active voice, slip for no good reason into the passive, and then get stuck there, as if we had landed on flypaper.

Getting stuck in turn leads to stylistic misfortune, because the passive voice is an enemy of expressive economy. It simply takes more words to form than does the active voice. Compare Jim wrote the memo, at four words, to The memo was written by Jim, at six. Over the course of a document, those extra words add up fast. By disrupting the usual sequence of actor and action, the passive voice further slows the reader down. Next to Jim wrote the memo, the passively phrased alternative seems unnecessarily indirect. Documents full of such phrasings can exasperate even a patient reader.

The most significant reason for the passive voice’s bad reputation is its effect on clarity. The passive voice lets us write The statement was considered defamatory, without specifying who took the statement ill. The missing information matters. Who considered the statement defamatory? The defamed person? Then a lawsuit may ensue. The jury? Then million-dollar damages may result. A doting aunt? Then the story stops far short of a courtroom. Only a careless writer would leave a reader so deeply in the dark. That’s why editors champion the active voice and why careful writers prefer it to the passive.

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