General Question

robmandu's avatar

How not to write in passive voice?

Asked by robmandu (21331points) October 24th, 2007

I have a hard time spotting it… but I know it’s obvious and a serious no-no in writing.

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14 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

Spotting the passive voice isn’t so hard. Obviousness isn’t always that. Serious no-nos in writing hasn’t stopped many people. PV is often used by lazy writers, but there are situations (science writing, for example) where it is useful and accepted. (Find five examples in text written by me [make that six].) Grade will count (make that seven).

More than you want to know:

Passive voice

cwilbur's avatar

Passive voice isn’t inherently a bad thing, and I don’t think it’s a sign of laziness.

If the emphasis is on the action and not on the actor, as is often the case in science writing, passive voice is not only useful and accepted but correct. The reason it’s such a bugbear for writing teachers is that the same thing expressed in passive voice and in active voice is often clearer and more straightforward in active voice. Business writing tends towards the self-important and needlessly verbose, and the use of passive voice when active voice would be terser is one of the most common things that bad writers to to puff up their verbosity.

To identify it, look at each sentence, and ask, is the subject of this sentence the actor (the person doing the action) or the action? One big hint is that you can’t identify the actor—the difference between “I made a mistake” and “A mistake was made.” In the former, in active voice, the subject of the sentence is the actor – I – while in the latter, the subject of the sentence is the action – a mistake. In the latter sentence, you can’t even identify who made the mistake.

But more importantly, focus on omitting unnecessary words. When you write a sentence, look at it and ask yourself, “can I say the same thing more clearly, with fewer words?” If the answer is yes, then do so. You’ll find that your active/passive problems quickly disappear.

robmandu's avatar

@cwilbur, who wrote, “One big hint is that you can’t identify the actor—the difference between “I made a mistake” and “A mistake was made.””.

Ah ha! That definitely helps. Most of my writing is in emails/docs for clients… and often times, you DON’T want the actor to be made clear… especially if identifying a problem that needs correction. It’s just needlessly embarrassing when we really do want to focus on taking action to resolve the problem, not point fingers at whose at fault.

And therefore, as you also said, I can see where the passive voice is indeed “not only useful and accepted but correct.”


gailcalled's avatar

@rob; With respect, I would fire any firm working for me who sent a note saying, “A mistake was made.”

Yes, one DOES want someone to take responsibility, apologize nicely and THEN go on to correct things. I would be very unhappy to do business with a company where mistakes are made w. no people attached.

Many of our country’s weasel leaders say all the time, “MIstakes were made.”” I feel enraged.

My elegant and clear edu. (UNC) site quotes, “The boy was hit by the dodgeball,” as a benign use of the PV.

And then the joke; “The road was crossed by the chicken.”

Op. cit.

robmandu's avatar

@cwilbur; Hey, I hear ya… when it comes to MY mistakes, that’s easily done. When it comes to mistakes made on the client side, where the people you work with daily may lose face when THEIR mistakes are mentioned to the higher-ups for the first time from an outsider, that’s where it can get dicey… in those cases, I tend to pick my battles.

Anyways, thanks again!

robmandu's avatar

ugh… sorry…

Robmandu meant to write the last reply @gailcalled… not @cwilbur (too late to correct now).

nice use of active voice, eh?

christybird's avatar

Passive voice is fairly common in scientific journal articles and the like, but even there, you’re supposed to use it in moderation.
And really, it gets annoying to read sentence after sentence like: “Birds were marked…” “An area was chosen…” etc. In my scientific writing class (taught by someone who edits a scientific journal) I was told to mix it up with some good active voice sentences: “I marked birds…” “I chose a study area…” etc.

gailcalled's avatar

Robm: I still would argue that 1) everyone makes mistakes from time to time and that 2) EVERYONE benefits from noticing them. Discussing a problem (maybe best not to use the word mistake, which is fraught w. judgement) helps all….we learn from our missteps and who among us really wants to feel perfect?

Evaluating a problem is an art; you start with the compliments and slip in the “tiny” blip that needs to be addressed. It is a skill that all managers need to know.

The Amish women, when they made their exquisite quilts, deliberately made one error. They believed that only their G*d could be errorfree.

There was a wonderful discussion here (that I can’t find – Hoss or Kev, can you?) on morality, absolute and relative truth.

hossman's avatar

I am baffled why so many people become so irate at the use of the words error or mistake. Neither word should bear a negative connotation. Since everyone makes mistakes, no one should be upset at a kind correction. The problem is when you dwell on errors rather than moving on and correcting them. So long as the person making the correction does so with kindness, I see no reason to become angry. I have always found it is best to be the first to acknowledge your own errors, and make amends immediately. I have saved myself some serious business problems by immediately picking up the phone, and getting right to the point: “I’m sorry, I made a mistake. . .” and then describing my plans to correct the error.

Response moderated (Writing Standards)
Unbroken's avatar

If you don’t mind tangents..
This triggers a vague memory of reading something about the typical differences in fe/male writing techniques. Supposedly women naturally use more pronouns verbs and adjectives then opposed to male voices. I did concentrate on that issue when I wrote in the future and often if I am editing do end up deleting a lot of fluff. I also tried to compare it in books articles and real life samples. Like all generalizations its not a perfect theory but enough to make it interesting to me.

gailcalled's avatar

^^^—-And don’t forget the use of the comma, please.—

Unbroken's avatar

@gailcalled Lol. How right you are. My weakness is punctuation. I realize the benefits and that it can be an annoyance, at the least. So I will make an effort, especially in writing topics. Feel free to correct me, should you be so inclined.

gailcalled's avatar

Let’s eat grandma.

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