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Writing Wrongs: Getting Vocal about Passive Voice

When it comes to passive voice, mistakes have definitely been made; it's been both maligned and misidentified. So far I've been passive about the subject, but I can't take it anymore! I need to take action and let my voice be heard! (If you don't get the joke, you may need to read on😉.)

A case of mistaken identity

"To be" verbs aren't necessarily passive.

Confusion about passive voice abounds. Too many times I've read/heard that whenever you see to be verbs, it's passive voice. But even though passive verbs are formed with a to be verb (plus a past participle), to be verbs aren't necessarily indicative of passive voice.

For example, the first sentence of this blog post contains three passive verbs: have been made, has been maligned, and has been misidentified. But despite looking quite similar to these three verbs, the first verb of the second sentencehave been passiveis active voice. (Confused? Skip down to "Will the real passive voice please stand up.")

Continuous verbs are usually not passive.

Because they start with auxiliary to be verbs, continuous verbs (verbs that indicate ongoing action) are often mistaken for passive voice.

  • present continuous: is/are running

  • past continuous: was/were running

  • present perfect continuous: has/have been running

  • past perfect continuous: had been running

  • future continuous: will be running

  • future perfect continuous: will have been running

Compare the following examples, and check out who—or what—is the subject of the sentence, and who is performing the action.

  • Passive voice: The book was written by a woman.

  • Active voice (simple past): A woman wrote the book.

  • Active voice (past continuous): A woman was writing the book.

Just to keep things interesting, continuous verbs can be passive as well.

  • passive present continuous: The book is being written by a woman.

  • passive past continuous: The book was being written by a woman.

Just as too many passive verbs can weaken writing, so can too many continuous verbs; but lumping them together and calling them both passive voice is just plain wrong. And both have their place in good writing.

Get/got isn't always passive.

Get/got is often used instead of be in informal writing, especially with passive voice. But that doesn't mean every time you see a got or get that it's passive.

  • Active voice with got: Joe finally got a job.

  • Passive voice with got: But then he got fired.

Will the real passive voice please stand up?

So then ... how do you identify passive voice?

By asking yourself who's doing the action. Is the subject of the sentence acting, or being acted upon? If the one doing the action is either unknown or is someone other than the subject, then you have passive voice. (I love the trick given by Carol Saller when she was a guest on The Editing Podcast: If you can add "by zombies" to the sentence and it still makes sense, then it's passive.)

  • Mistakes were made. Who made mistakes? Uh ... I'm not sure, but it could have been zombies. Theoretically. So this is passive voice.

  • Mistakes were made by George. Who made mistakes? George. George is not the subject of the sentence (which is mistakes), so this is also passive voice. A prepositional phrase that starts with "by" often accompanies a passive verb.

  • I have been passive. Who has been passive? Me. And since I'm the subject of the sentence, this is active voice.

So why the bad rap?

The mistaken belief that passive voice is bad writing and should always be avoided is often traced back to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. The favorite of English professors throughout the twentieth century, this slender little book is loaded with succinct and mostly excellent writing tips.

Use active voice ... exclusively?

But perhaps Strunk and White took their own advice—“omit needless words”—too far when they penned the chapter title “Use Active Voice.” Pithy, yes, but decidedly lacking in nuance.

Incidentally, The Elements of Style also contributed to the tendency to misidentify passive voice, since some of their examples of passive voice ... aren't.*

Passive voice has a purpose

While active voice lends itself to concise, direct sentences and is often the better choice, there are times when passive voice is the right tool for the job:

When the actor is unknown.

  • I've been robbed!

When the actor is less important than the action.

  • Sally just got married.

When the actor needs to be downplayed for reasons of diplomacy or legality.

  • Mistakes were made.

In fact, passive voice is indispensable for lawyers and politicians, who sometimes need to discuss bad actions without appearing to lay blame, and scientists, who want to sound objective by de-emphasizing the role of individual researchers.

But other than accurately portraying the voice of a lawyer or a scientist, why would creative writers need to use passive voice?

To change the emphasis in a sentence.

In an active sentence, the emphasis is on the actor, and in passive voice, the emphasis is on the one acted upon.

Notice how the emphasis changes in these three sentences:

1. My mom was beaten and mugged.
2. My mom was beaten up by robbers.
3. Robbers beat up my mom.

In sentence #1 (passive voice with an anonymous actor), what happened to my mom is front and center. In sentence #2 (passive voice with the actor mentioned), who did the beating is less important than what happened to my mom, but still notable. In sentence #3, the fact that it was robbers is emphasized.

In conclusion

Just because something has a tendency to be overused or misused doesn't mean it should never be used. Sometimes passive voice is the best choice, and striving to eliminate all instances can make your writing worse, not better.

All I am saying … is give passive voice a chance!


*To be fair, the examples at the beginning of the chapter are passive, and the questionable examples at the end don't specifically claim to be passive and perhaps were meant to be examples of other wordy constructions that use "to be." But since they're in the chapter "Use Active Voice," their being examples of passive voice is implied. At the very least, Strunk and White failed to make themselves clear.


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