What is the passive voice? Part 2 of 2
In the first part of my two-part series “What is the passive voice?” I talked about the differences between the active and passive voices and the ways to spot passive constructions. In this second part, I’ll theorize about why the passive voice is considered bad or weak writing, discuss some strategies for revising passive constructions, and describe situations in which the passive voice can be useful or preferable. Click here to check out the first part of the series, “What is the passive voice? Part 1.”
What’s wrong with the passive voice?
The passive voice has a bad reputation, but in no way is it grammatically wrong. Why, then, do many people consider it bad writing? I can think of two reasons.
First, the passive voice is a lot wordier than the active voice. Using the active voice cuts down on your word count (passive constructions add at least one extra word in the form of a to-be verb and often a second word in the form of by). Being concise helps keep your reader engaged; hence, avoiding the passive voice helps make your writing more concise and thereby more engaging.
Second, passive constructions, especially those that include the preposition by, are oftentimes less clear than their active counterparts. English is a subject-verb-object language, meaning that English speakers are accustomed to getting the doer of the action at the beginning of the sentence. Thus, passive constructions, in which the doer of the action comes after the verb, can obscure the subject.
How to reword passive constructions
We’ve established that passive constructions are not wrong; however, they are usually unnecessarily wordy and sometimes unclear, so we should consider rewording them if we can. If we know the doer of the action, indicated by the preposition by, rewording a passive sentence is quite straightforward. Consider the following passive construction:
The sink was fixed by the plumber.
The doer of the action is the plumber, the action is fixed, and the object of the action is the sink. If we can identify these three pieces of information, we can reword the sentence accordingly by putting the doer of the action at the beginning:
The plumber fixed the sink.
If we have a passive construction in which the doer of the action is not specified (such as “The sink was fixed”), it’s not possible to reword the sentence unless we specify a doer. In fact, being able to write a sentence without indicating the doer of the action is the biggest advantage that the passive voice has over the active voice (see below).
The advantages of the passive voice
Generally, the active voice is preferable to the passive voice because it’s less wordy and more clear. However, the passive voice has one advantage over the active voice: passive constructions do not require a doer of the action.
Omitting the doer of the action is useful in two ways: (1) when the doer of the action is irrelevant or (2) the doer of the action is unknown. Consider the following example:
Betty was fired from her job last week.
In this example, who fired Betty is unimportant. Rather, the emphasis of the sentence is Betty and the fact that she was fired. It’s implied or understood that she was fired by her boss. So rather than saying “Betty’s boss fired her from her job last week,” we can employ the passive voice to place the emphasis on Betty instead of her boss. Here’s another example:
Stonehenge was constructed between 3000 and 2000 BC.
The passive voice in this example is helpful because we don’t know for certain who (or, according to ancient alien theorists, what) built Stonehenge; the main point is that it was constructed sometime in the third millennium BC. Rewording this sentence to remove the passive construction would require a degree of speculation that is unimportant or unnecessary in this context; thus, the passive voice is actually preferable to the active voice.
I hope that this thorough two-part discussion clears up many of the misconceptions about the passive voice. Remember that just because the passive voice is “passive” in the sense that the subject of the sentence has something done to it (rather than the subject of the sentence doing something), “passive” is not akin to bad” or weak writing. The passive voice can be wordy, unclear, and sometimes annoying, but it is not wrong.
My final advice is to use the active voice for the bulk of your sentences while reserving the passive voice for cases requiring special emphasis or those in which the doer of the action is unknown.