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Passive voice is not to be shunned

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Written by Stan Carey

The passive voice is a common target for complaint and criticism. But there is widespread confusion about when it’s appropriate and what it even is. In English grammar, voice refers to whether a verb is active or passive. In active voice, the subject is what does or is responsible for the action of the verb. In passive voice, the subject is what is affected by the action of the verb. Choosing active or passive changes the emphasis.

Let’s look at an example. The team submits the plan is in active voice, because the grammatical subject, the team, does the action – it submits the plan. We can make it passive: The plan is submitted (by the team). Here the grammatical subject is the plan, and it’s affected by the action of the verb, submitted. Both lines are fine; they just put the focus on different things: the team, or the plan.

By comparing the lines we see the structural differences between the two voices. Passive voice adds a form of the verb be (or occasionally get), followed by a past participle of the verb: is submitted, got damaged, etc. This is followed by the preposition by when we identify who or what did the action – the agent. We don’t have to include the agent – the shorter line The plan was submitted is OK too; it just provides less information.

Most lines in passive voice omit the agent, and sometimes that’s the desired effect. In a news story, for instance, The thieves were arrested does not need the phrase ‘by police’, because who else would arrest them? Putting it in active voice, Police arrested the thieves, foregrounds the police – but the story is about the thieves. Gill Francis looked at this area in more detail.

In passive voice we may omit the agent because we don’t know who they are, or it’s implied or unimportant, or we’d rather not say. Mistakes were made, for example, allows someone responsible for those mistakes to avoid implicating themselves. We made mistakes would be a more principled admission. Notice, however, that Mistakes happened and Mistakes were unavoidable also avoid accountability but are in active voice. Many people think that lines like this – without a clear human agent – are passive, but they’re not. Neither has a form of be followed by a past participle.

Clarity is another factor. Science writing has a tradition of passive voice to avoid mentioning the human experimenters (The study was conducted instead of We conducted the study) and thus support science’s claim to neutrality. But that neutrality is ultimately disputable, and constant defaulting to passive voice can lead to disjointed, overly complicated prose, including constructions like the double passive.

Context and flexibility are key. Critics of the passive voice often misidentify it and are generally unaware of its utility, but you should be careful to use it judiciously. For more detail on different forms of the passive, the many ways it’s used and scapegoated, you can watch this series of videos on the passive voice.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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