As writers, we are told about many rules we’re supposed to follow. Avoid adverbs. Don’t start with a prologue. Eschew the passive voice. Don’t use words like “eschew.” On the off chance that someone does say “eschew,” say “gesundheit!”
Okay, maybe not all of those are well-established rules, but the first few definitely are. And I have a problem with rules like these (to be fair, I have a lot of problems, as some of you likely have guessed). But today I’m going to write about the problem I have with one rule in particular: the one that says we should eschew (gesundheit!) the passive voice.
What it is (and what it ain’t)
First of all, what is the passive voice? It’s a way of constructing sentences where the subject has the action done to it, rather than performing the action. For example:
The treaty was signed by the two generals.
The most awesome post ever was written by Keith.
The egret was eaten by the alligator.
In each case, the action happened TO the subject of the sentence (treaty, post, egret).
By contrast, here are the same three sentences cast in the active voice:
The two generals signed the treaty.
Keith wrote the most awesome post ever.
The alligator ate the egret (and then sang, “Egrets? I’ve had a few,” in a surprisingly good Sinatra impression).
In each of these active-voice examples, the subject of the sentence (the generals, Keith, the alligator) is performing the action. Both sets of sentences say the same thing, but conventional wisdom maintains that the ones written in the active voice are stronger and more vigorous. If that increased strength and vigor is not immediately apparent, let’s find some better examples.
The boy closed the door.
The door was closed by the boy.
or, even worse:
I think most of us would agree the second sentence is pretty weak in both of those examples. If nothing else, the first sentences are definitely cleaner. So these are situations where the passive voice probably is the weaker choice. Similarly, there are plenty of instances where too much use of the passive voice can really de-energize – and often de-personalize – your writing.
So why am I opposed to the no-passive rule? First and foremost, because many people mistakenly tag sentences as passive that actually are not. Over the years that I’ve spent interacting with writers both online and in person, I’ve seen a lot of misunderstanding of what the passive voice is – and what it isn’t. So let’s take a quick quiz to see how well we understand this passive thing. [Read more…]