Using the Passive Voice is Okay. . . Sometimes
As a literary savant, you've likely heard the advice, "never write in the passive voice" countless times. Well, I'm here to tell you that piece of advice is a load of crap. Read on to find out why! 3/14/19.
Cast your mind back to high school English class.
Scary, I know. Tomorrow, you have a test on the different forms of poetry, and in a week, your essay on Shakespeare’s Macbeth is due. You’re not too worried about the poetry test, but the Macbeth essay looks daunting. So, when your curmudgeon of a teacher offers a few nuggets of advice on essay writing, you listen attentively.
“Never, ever use the passive voice!” he shouts at the class.
“But sir,” you object, “what about----”
Now, you may not have had a traumatizing experience like the one above, but you’ve likely heard the age-old writing advice, “Always write in the active voice, never the passive.” It’s commonly believed among writers that using the passive voice is a cardinal sin and should be avoided at all costs.
But, frankly, that’s not true. The passive voice can be useful in a variety of situations and, believe it or not, if used effectively, can make your writing much stronger. In this article, I’ll highlight five situations where using the passive voice rather than the active voice can be beneficial. But first, let me clarify an important question so that we’re all on the same page.
What is the passive voice?
In writing, the passive voice is a method of narration that places emphasis on the object of the sentence rather than the actor. For example, “The ball was thrown by Jimmy” is voiced passively because the object (the ball) comes first.
The counterpart to that example sentence would be, “Jimmy threw the ball,” which is written in the active voice. The active voice places the emphasis on the actor rather than the object.
Both voices sound reasonable based on their definitions, so why is there a problem with using the passive voice?
Well, the passive voice (generally) makes writing indirect, wordy, and weak. Sentences in the passive voice are almost always longer than their active-voice counterparts, so passive voice doesn’t help with clarity and conciseness, either. Plus, the emphasis should almost always be on the subject (actor) not the object. Narrative writing, especially fiction, is about the characters and how they act, not the objects they act upon. So, the style of writing should highlight the characters, which is what active voice does.
In fact, using the passive voice, the actor can be removed from a sentence altogether. For example, “The ball was thrown by Jimmy” can be changed to “The ball was thrown.” Both sentences are in passive voice, and in the latter, we have no idea who threw the ball!
The concerns about using the passive voice are absolutely warranted, but there are still many situations in which using the passive voice can be a beneficial tactic.
Here are the five most common circumstances where using the passive voice is okay:
1. When you want to focus on the object of the sentence
Sometimes, the object of the sentence will, in fact, be more important than the actor.
If the main character of a novel is hosting a party for 500 starving guests and the sandwiches finally arrive, the protagonist isn’t going to care who brings the sandwiches in the house. What matters is that the sandwiches arrived. In that case, it can be better to write “The sandwiches were brought to the kitchen” rather than “The caterers brought the sandwiches into the kitchen.”
I’m sure the caters are lovely people, but we just don’t care about them for the purposes of the story.
Scientific fields also commonly require emphasis on the objects and not the actors. In a lab report, it doesn’t matter that Jane Smith prepped the beakers and poured the chemicals. It only matters that the beakers had been prepped and the chemicals were poured. As a result, passive voice is most common in writing for scientific fields.
2. To avoid the 1st-person singular pronoun
In many forms of formal writing, using the first-person singular pronoun I should be avoided. A good way to accomplish that is to use the passive voice and eliminate the actor from the sentence altogether.
“I compiled the data and recorded my findings” becomes “The data was compiled, and the findings were recorded.”
As you may have guessed from the example, scientific writing uses the passive voice for the reason of eliminating I’s as well. This is especially useful in the case where multiple people worked on the same paper or project. It can cause potential arguments within the group and look pretentious to the audience to name exactly what each person in the group contributed. Instead, the passive voice is used, and nobody worries about the problem----I mean, the problem isn’t worried about.
3. When the subject can be inferred
Sometimes, the actor in a sentence is so obvious that it becomes redundant to specify it.
Let’s return to the sandwich example to illustrate this point: “The sandwiches were brought to the kitchen.”
Not only do we not care who brought the sandwiches to the kitchen, it’s also obvious who brought the sandwiches to the kitchen: the catering company. Well, it becomes obvious with more context, at least; there are thousands of sandwiches, and the main character just spent the last fifteen minutes in a shouting match with the delivery crew who got lost along the way.
A word of caution: most of the time, even if the actor can be inferred, it’s better to use the active voice, since the actor is still important. Therefore, this situation works in conjunction with situation #1. In other words, “inferring the subject” isn’t always a sufficient condition for using the passive voice, but together with an unimportant subject, it is.
4. To evade personal responsibility
A nifty passive voice trick is using it to attempt to evade personal responsibility.
For example, the leader of a country making a speech about the latest war wouldn’t say “We killed many people.” Instead, they would opt for “Many people were killed.” Using the passive voice evades the responsibility for the country in question doing the killing. It takes the responsibility and tosses it in the air, because whoever did the killing wasn’t named.
You can use this trick for when characters in fiction are being shifty, defensive, or lying. Pay attention to when the active and passive voices are used in the following sentence:
“Yes, a few mistakes were made, perhaps, but look at how much I helped!”
The speaker is taking ownership for the helping, but not for the mistakes; something we’re all prone to doing.
5. For sentence variation
The last commonly acceptable use for the passive voice is for plain old sentence variation. If every sentence is phrased in the active voice, narration can become stinted and boring. It’s okay to throw in a passive-voice sentence every so often for the purpose of creating diversity within a narrative.
If you’re going to do this, try to pick sentences that suit the first four conditions. In other words, if you’re going to pick a sentence to phrase in the passive voice for the purpose of diversity, try to pick the most suitable sentence. Find one where the object is more important than the subject, one where the subject can be inferred, or one where you can simultaneously avoid using an unnecessary I.
This “passive vs. active voice” argument is but one example of the many rules and nuances of the English language. Honestly, it sucks to receive advice with a large grey area; people want black and white. It would be much easier to follow the mantra of never using the passive voice, but writing would inherently suffer because, as I’ve explained, passive voice can be beneficial if used properly.
As for when to use the passive voice, along with the countless other rules for English usage, my best advice is to not worry too much about it. If you’re constantly assessing every sentence for passive vs. active (and many other factors), you’ll never get any writing done. Just make sure you’re aware of the rules and their exceptions, but don’t focus on them when you’re writing. Often, your instinct will guide you much better than your active mind will. That’s a strange idea, but it applies to the craft of writing in numerous, often unexpected ways.