General Question

Aesthetic_Mess's avatar

What's so wrong with the passive voice?

Asked by Aesthetic_Mess (7858 points ) May 10th, 2012

Why is it such a bad thing (or at least not advised) to write in the passive voice? Why is it frowned upon?
Microsoft Word even has a feature in its Spelling & Grammar tool that identifies when you use it, so that you will not.

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38 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

Responsibilty is take by no one.

Aethelflaed's avatar

We, as a society, see passivity as a bad thing. That includes in writing.

Qingu's avatar

Sentences are clearer and easier to read/internalize in active voice.

Passive voice can also easily obscure the subject.

Active: “Jim killed the dog.”
Passive: “The dog was killed.” (by whom?)

Lightlyseared's avatar

Nothing’s wrong with it as such. It mainly comes down to a preference of the style manual you are following. Although most modern style manuals are against it, at the start of the 20th century the advice was the other way round.

You can also use the passive voice to emphasise the object over the subject.

DominicX's avatar

The passive voice is used quite a bit in scientific writing.

I use the passive voice often mainly because I’ve spent years studying Latin, where the passive voice is just another inflected form of the verb, often preferred over the active for various reasons.

The passive voice is often seen as not being direct or forceful enough and the active voice is more characteristic of “stronger” writing. But it really depends; some outlets call for passive voice, others don’t. Often when the object/patient is more important and should be emphasized, then the passive voice is used. This can appear in any type of writing.

Trillian's avatar

I avoid passive voice if I can. It abdicates responsibility, in my view. If someone starts a conversaion with me with; “I was told”, I’m likely to not even listen. You can claim pretty much anything by saying “It has been said”, or “I was told”.

linguaphile's avatar

You’d be much, much, MUCH safer as a teacher if you can master the art of the positive passive voice.
See:
Jimmy punched Tommy at the playground. (identifies aggressor and person to blame- legally we can’t do that)
Tommy was hit while at the playground.

Jessica leaves her homework partly incomplete frequently. (blames Jessica for being a lazy student, parents will freak if I blame their little darlings)
Jessica’s homework is in need of completion from time to time.

gailcalled's avatar

@linguaphile. If a child does not complete his homework, it seems straightforward to simply say that. The passive voice seems awkward and unrelated to Jessica, whose homework it is, after all. You can say that without using the word “lazy.”

The punching incident does seem more sensitive. I would avoid the passive voice there also, however, and write that there was an incident on the playground that involved Jimmy and Tommy. Or write nothing down and call the parents and kids in for a conference.

linguaphile's avatar

My first 3 years of teaching—I got all my student evaluations back covered with red ink. I think my boss just enjoyed her red pen too much, but her point was, passivitize as much as possible. I hated it!!! But over the years, I have seen certain parents, especially those in special ed, become extremely defensive when their kids are criticized in any way. Using the passive voice helps soften the criticism—

the100thmonkey's avatar

@Qingu: “Sentences are clearer and easier to read/internalize in active voice.”

Says who?

There’s nothing wrong with the passive voice; admonitions against it are just another example of the rampant prescriptivism that seems to pervade American society.

gailcalled's avatar

@linguaphile: So, at what point does everyone have to admit that Jessica is not completing her homework? Surely you can couch it as a description rather than a judgment.

Qingu's avatar

@linguaphile, your case is specific, not general. In your case you explicitly don’t want to highlight the subject, and you want sentences to be vague and indirect.

Passive voice is often used in academic writing for a similar purpose (although I think it’s overused).

In most other writing, this is not the case.

@the100thmonkey, passive voice has a place. Sometimes a sentence is more effective for a given purpose if it’s vague. Sometimes you want to highlight the object and not the subject. That’s fine. I’m not saying everyone always has to use active voice. On the other hand, the grammatical effectiveness of active vs. passive isn’t simply a matter of opinion that can be brushed under the rug. In most cases a sentence in active voice is clearer and easier to read. You can measure to a large extent how well people understand writing and grammar.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@Qingu: I’m an English teacher. Such a broad-brush generalisation as I quoted was what I was poking at.

That passive voice doesn’t “have a place”; it’s a feature of natural language present in tongues as separate as English and Japanese. Language can be described; it cannot – indeed will not – be prescribed.

Lexile is irrelevant here – it’s that exact kind of prescriptivism that I was talking about. To suggest that results from assessment of language comprehension are in any way indicative of the role of an integral feature of a language system is petitio principii in its baldest form. It’s not about how easy it is to understand – it’s about what it’s used for…

The passive voice exists in English and is universally used. Therefore there’s nothing wrong with it. There are ineffective, less effective and more effective ways to use it depending on your speech community and the genre you’re deploying. It just so happens that it’s viewed with suspicion in American discourse for some reason that is unfathomable to me – I’m British and have never once encountered such an attitude to the passive except from Americans. Vagueness is just one of the purposes for which it is used.

Qingu's avatar

I’m not sure what we’re disagreeing about, exactly.

I don’t think I ever said “you should not use passive voice ever”? I said it usually results in less clear sentences.

In any case I’ll be damned if I take writing advice from someone who doesn’t even put punctuation within a quotation mark.

Jeruba's avatar

I am an ardent defender of the passive voice. It is a perfectly legitimate English construction and should not be treated as unlawful, indecent, or diseased.

To be sure, a high proportion of the time it is better, more effective, more interesting, and more economical to use an active verb. But when the passive is right, it’s right, and it makes no sense to banish it unilaterally. Some teachers and even some editors are overzealous executioners of passive constructions.

But what strikes me as infinitely worse is that so many of those who declare the passive to be anathema misidentify it. They will reflexively mark any instance of the verb “to be” in any form as passive. They will call a sentence such as “We were late for class” passive. It is not. They may even go so far as to ask a student to recast “I was born” in the active voice! Why?

Kneejerk marking of each use of “was,” “were,” “am,” “have been,” and so on as passive is far more ignorant than a native speaker’s natural use of the passive voice, in my firm opinion. Terrorizing writing students with accusatory labels when all they are doing is writing in the past tense is an astonishing educational lapse that warrants active opposition.

morphail's avatar

There’s nothing wrong with it. Some people complain that it obscures the agent, but it doesn’t have to – “the dog bit me” and “I was bitten by the dog” are equally clear as to agency.

Obscuring agency is not a problem particular to the passive. The active voice can obscure the agent too, for instance “the book fell off the table”.

DominicX's avatar

What about the middle voice?

“This book reads well” :P

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

GQ. Nothing, in my opinion.

wundayatta's avatar

I guess it’s an issue of choosing the right tool for the job. If you want to know who is doing what, use the active voice. If you want to make things vague and not attribute blame or even make it clear who is doing what, use the passive voice.

I think there are cultural preferences for various types of language. Culture can be very didactic, I think. But that doesn’t make it right.

morphail's avatar

@wundayatta Except that you can be “vague and not attribute blame” with the active voice:
The book fell off the table. (who pushed it?)
This book reads well. (who’s reading it?)

And you can make clear who is doing what with the passive voice:
The book was pushed off the table by me.

majorrich's avatar

All your base are belong to us. A classic active sentence. just a bad translation.

Response moderated
wundayatta's avatar

Perhaps the homework has already been completed.

Response moderated
morphail's avatar

@linguaphile
“Jessica’s homework is in need of completion from time to time.”
This is not passive!

gailcalled's avatar

^^Just extremely awkward.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@QinguAd hominem? Really…

I don’t remember giving you any writing advice, just remonstrating with you over funky attitudes to the passive.

Incidentally, punctuation can go with within and outside quotation marks depending on whether the punctuation applies to the whole sentence or clause or the clause within the quotes. I may have made a mistake above (on re-reading, I can’t find it though), I hope you’ll forgive me for writing quickly on the internet.

linguaphile's avatar

Look—I’m just saying how it is at my work, and it was that way in 3 different states doing the same job, actually. Awkward or not, that’s how I am expected to write- in the passive voice with a positive spin. Four times every school year, I have to write 175–200 short reports, one on each goal and objective of every IEP student I teach, in this way. Do I contort sentences to fit the expectations? Yes Easy? No. Likable? No. But legislated and can parents sue me in court for it? Yes.

My answer was not about the best writing skills, but an example of, seriously, how we have to write in special education.

That’s the nature of the system. Passive voice required. And I have 12 days left at this job. Anyone want to give it a spin?

gailcalled's avatar

@linguaphile.How about preparing yourself for a wonderful surprise birthday party tomorrow? That should be a distraction. Or I should say that distractions will be provided.

(What’s the weather report?)

Aethelflaed's avatar

@linguaphile It actually legally requires you to write in the passive voice, and parents can sue you for using active voice?

morphail's avatar

@Aethelflaed obviously not, since one of the examples @linguaphile gives is not in the passive voice.

ratboy's avatar

Never in the field of English usage was so much known by so few to the amusement of so many.

linguaphile's avatar

@gailcalled Yep—- weather’s going to be sunny with light clouds and about 68 degrees. :D
@Aethelflaed No, not legally required to, but it reduces the directness in writing in hopes of reducing strong reactions, like legal action.

From my grammar guru—the place I go to doublecheck my information…
“We find an overabundance of the passive voice in sentences created by self-protective business interests, magniloquent educators, and bombastic military writers (who must get weary of this accusation), who use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for actions taken. Thus “Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children” places the burden on the ads — as opposed to “We designed the cigarette ads to appeal especially to children,” in which “we” accepts responsibility. At a White House press briefing we might hear that “The President was advised that certain members of Congress were being audited” rather than “The Head of the Internal Revenue service advised the President that her agency was auditing certain members of Congress” because the passive construction avoids responsibility for advising and for auditing.”

I’m not voluntarily a magniloquent educator- but I can see where the writer’s coming from.

@morphail “Jessica’s homework is in need of completion from time to time.” is not fully passive, you’re right, but it is not active.

That being said, the thread was left by Lingua because the question that was asked by the OP has been derailed.

gailcalled's avatar

“Homework (of Jessica) needs completion.”
Awkward but active.

morphail's avatar

@linguaphile It is not the passive voice in any way at all.

I think most analyses of English syntax have only two voices, active and passive, so if it’s not passive it’s active.

linguaphile's avatar

@morphail Okay, explain why it’s not passive.

morphail's avatar

@linguaphile Because the passive voice is identified by the presence of a past participle, usually accompanied by a form of the verb “be”. (Of course this is a simplification; see here for a detailed description.) There is no past participle in the sentence “Jessica’s homework is in need of completion from time to time.”

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