Getting Grammatical: What's the Big Deal With the Passive Voice?

03/19/2015 03:01 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015

An author I work with recently asked me, “What’s the big deal with the passive voice?”

My first instinct was to answer, “Well, would that question have made as much sense as ‘The big deal with the passive voice is about what?’” Three things stopped me:

  1. First of all, that’s a very New York Jewish sentence construction and I didn’t want to dis my forebearers
  2. Second of all, it was snarky, which isn’t a great way to communicate anything
  3. Third, she’s a bright, articulate, and talented writer who deserves a better answer

So I thought I’d give it here.


To understand why editors and English teachers cringe at the sight of a passive sentence, we have to review basic English syntax. (Sorry.)

English is a highly malleable language in just about every way except for sentence structure. Unless you are asking a question (called an interrogative sentence), ordering someone to do something (imperative), or just shouting in joy/frustration/surprise (exclamatory), most (declarative) English sentences include a subject that comes before the verb.

The Active Voice

To put that another way, the actor -- the one who does the thing -- comes before the act -- the thing that the actor does: Dick runs. (Run, Dick, Run!)

[Dick] is the subject/actor; {run} is the verb/action.

Now, we can complicate the heck out of that sentence: [An All-Indian sprinter before coming to Northwest Central State, Dick Tuljapurkar] {runs the 100 and 200 meter dashes and the 100 meter hurdles as well as being a member of the 400 and 800 meter relay teams that won gold medals in last spring’s Division III championship meet.} (Run, Dick, Run!)

Complicated, sure, but the [subject] (and everything that modified it) still came before the {verb} (and everything that modified it -- which is known collectively as the predicate).

To paraphrase that wonderful font of popular education, Schoolhouse Rock, Dick “is the subject of the sentence, and what the predicates says, he does.”

We call this the active voice.

Notice that I didn’t say anything about the verb to be -- a perfectly good and often even essential verb that can be used in completely active sentences (in the sentence above: “…as well as being a member…”).

The Passive Voice

Still with me? Okay, now let’s look at the passive voice, and what’s wrong with it.

A passive sentence takes the actor and places it after the verb: [The running] {is done by Dick.} Note that the subject of the sentence is now the running, even though Dick is the guy who does it; he’s been demoted to the object of the preposition by, which modifies the verb. He’s lost there, way at the end of the sentence. Poor Dick.

So? What’s the big deal?

The big deal is two-fold: the passive version of the sentence is longer; and, because it isn't as clear who did what, it’s not as powerful.

Passive constructions are almost always longer and less direct than active ones. I used to teach report-writing workshops to sheriff’s deputies and correctional officers -- a group whose favorite class in high school generally wasn’t English. Writing reports was their idea of hell, and yet documenting exactly what happened -- who did what -- was a huge part of their job.

They taught me just how bad passive sentences could get.

These folks loved the passive voice, for the same reason that less-experienced writers everywhere do: they thought that, because it’s more complicated, it would sound more sophisticated or official. In fact, the opposite is the case. My students would write things like The suspect was apprehended by this officer instead of I arrested her or The vehicle which had been absconded with was pursued by me in my police vehicle instead of I followed the stolen Ford Taurus in my police car. Honest to goodness -- they really did write this stuff. If you were a jury or a supervisor, which would you find clearer and more effective?

The other problem with passive constructions is that they bury the actor, which makes the sentence weaker and more obscure. To stoop to the example that I used in the 1980s with those cops, would you rather watch Debbie Does Dallas or Dallas Was Done by Debbie?

So when should I use the passive voice?

There are occasionally times when the emphasis really should be on the person/thing acted upon, rather than the actor: President Kennedy was killed by a rifle shot to the head. McKinley and Reagan, on the other hand, were shot in the chest.

The other time when the passive voice should be used is when the writer doesn’t know who took the action or wants to obscure the actor.

In the example above about the Kennedy assassination, I could have written in the active voice: Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy with a rifle shot to the head.

Suppose, however, that I’m trying to prove that Oswald wasn’t the assassin, or imagine that I was writing the afternoon of November 22, 1963, before the assailant’s name became known. Then I might drop Oswald out of the sentence -- and use the passive voice.

This last trick is a great favorite of corporate, military, and governmental folks everywhere. They turn to it in press releases and at press conferences whenever something has gone pear-shaped, solemnly murmuring, Mistakes were made. This much-abused passive sentence makes it clear that whatever it is that happened was bad, sure, but it also completely avoids taking or assigning any responsibility.

So that’s the big deal about the passive voice: it obscures the relationship of the actor to the act. Unless that’s what you want to do, avoid it!


Mirrored from Stillpoint Blogs.