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.
Mark each sentence below either “A” for “Active,” or “P” for “Passive.” Then count up how many P’s you have.
- He was driving home shortly after midnight.
- She was driven home shortly after midnight.
- Can you drive me home?
- You have driven me crazy.
- There was a bad accident on I-95 last night.
- A bad accident happened on I-95 last night.
- I was in a bad accident on I-95 last night.
- My car was totaled on I-95 last night.
- There is a common misconception that the passive voice is bad.
- People have a common misconception that the passive voice is bad.
- People have been led to believe that the passive voice is bad.
- Writing passively is something we should avoid.
So, how many passives did you find? By my count, there are only three (numbers 2, 8 and 11).
If you found more than three, you’re not alone. Many people mistakenly believe that any verb containing a form of “to be” (like is, was, were, etc.) indicates the passive voice. In particular, the past progressive tense often gets mistaken for passive voice. But as the Gershwin brothers so eloquently observed, it ain’t necessarily so – something I hope my little quiz demonstrates.
The reason I’m making a fuss about this is that I’ve seen way too many writers proclaim that they’re on a warpath to eliminate all those “to be” verbs, thinking that in doing so, they are purging their work of The Dreaded Passive Voice. That’s why “rules” scare me. Practiced in ignorance, they can do more harm than good. But that’s not my only problem with the anti-passive stance…
An opportunity to direct your reader’s focus
Sometimes the passive voice really is the most effective – and conversationally accurate – way to convey your point. Let’s examine these two sentences:
The king was buried at dawn.
A guy named Fred buried the king at dawn.
Okay, that’s a silly-sounding example. Let’s maintain a more consistent tone in that second one:
The royal gravedigger buried the king at dawn.
I’ll admit, that’s a decent sentence. But who is being emphasized in it? The gravedigger. And this is fine, if that’s where you want to focus the reader’s attention.
The royal gravedigger buried the king at dawn. This wasn’t the first king he’d buried, and he doubted it would be the last.
This could lead somewhere intriguing, and gives us an insider’s view on the frequency of royal mortality in that particular kingdom. But if the only point you wanted to make was that a king died and was buried, the passive sentence conveyed the fact more simply and effectively.
In situations like this, the passive voice gives you an opportunity to direct the focus of your sentence, which can come in pretty handy, as shown next:
The sword was passed down from one generation to the next for more than 400 years.
The royal family passed the sword down from one generation to the next for more than 400 years.
The sentences are similar, but the emphasis shifts in the second one. That’s fine, but only if that’s your desired result. If not, the passive one (the first sentence) reads cleaner, at least to me. This kind of thing is an opportunity to fine-tune your writing, exploring the nuances of how each construct affects and directs the reader’s focus.
Doing what comes naturally
This also leads to another reality of the passive voice: sometimes it just sounds right. Consider these lines:
I was born a poor black child. (from Steve Martin’s classic film The Jerk)
I was born on a Tuesday morning. (from a novel I’m rather fond of)
I was born in the USA. (from Bruce Springsteen’s classic anti-war anthem)
Those are all solid sentences. What you may not have noticed is that they’re all written in the passive voice. To put sentences like these into the active voice, we’d need to write something like:
Adele Springsteen gave birth to me in the USA.
My mother bore me in the USA.
Hmmm, not exactly rolling off the tongue, are they? That’s because the passive voice is firmly entrenched in conversational English. In other words, sometimes it’s just the way we say something, and to say it another way would sound wrong. Here’s an example that is probably one of the most aggressive things you can say in the passive voice:
Think about it. Would saying this in the active voice pack any more punch – or sound any better?
I fire you.
That’s just clunky as hell – nobody talks like that, other than maybe Boris Badenov. So maybe we could try something more like this:
I am firing you.
Better than the previous, but I still can’t picture Donald Trump saying it with the same gusto. However, context is everything. Maybe you’ve got a scene where a boss is having a conversation with an employee whom he’s trying to fire, but he’s tiptoeing around the point, and the employee doesn’t realize what’s happening.
“Ted, do you understand what we’re talking about here? I mean, I’m firing you. Don’t you get it?”
In that situation, I could see using the active voice. But I suspect that 99% of the time, “you’re fired” is the phrase that will work the best.
Bottom line, there are plenty of situations where the passive voice is not only acceptable; it is downright preferable. So I hope you’ll think twice before blindly obeying some arbitrary “rule” telling you otherwise. If this has piqued your curiosity and you want to delve deeper, here’s a page that breaks down numerous scenarios in which the passive voice may be your better choice.
How about you?
Have I persuaded you that the passive voice is not always your enemy? Or were you already onboard with my Passivity Tolerance Agenda (or, PTA)? Or are you still deeply entrenched in the camp of those who eschew (gesundheit!) the passive voice? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!
Or to put it more passively, you’re thanked!
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