Doesn't Passive Voice Have A Place?

If one is trying to write objectively, without the use of pronouns, doesn’t it then turn into passive voice? And, is that REALLY so awful? I think passive voice has its place in this instance instead of saying “I did this…” or “We did that…”

What are others opinions on this?

Don’t you mean, “if one tries to write…” :slight_smile:

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with the passive voice; it’s just a matter of style. In certain formal situations, it should be avoided. It forces you to keep your nouns as the object of the sentence; an object does something rather than has something happen to it. This is why passive voice is supposed to be avoided in academic writing. It makes cause and effect more explicit.

The passive voice can also be objectionable when people use it to avoid laying blame or placing responsibility. For example, “The money was stolen,” instead of “I stole the money,” or the classic, “Mistakes were made.”

Sometimes the passive voice is the best way to express something. For example, “Rules were made to be broken.”

In English, we generally place a high value on clarity and directness, especially in scientific and academic writing. Of course passive voice has a useful function, if you want to describe how something reacts to something else passive is appropriate, but more often than not it obscures the relationship between the performer of an action and its recipient. Sometimes you want that ambiguity, such as in the aforementioned examples of not laying blame directly, but more often than not you don’t. Excessive use of the passive voice can end up being a crutch to avoid forming complete thoughts, which is a good reason to discourage it in young students.

Like with most rules learned in primary school English, they’re good habits to follow but if you know what you’re doing it’s okay to break them sometimes.

Passive voice is sometimes resorted to, but the results may be found wanting. The lack of agency can be deprecated - when the phrase “mistake were made” is used, for instance, responsibility is apparently being ducked! Worse solecisms can be perpetrated, but it has been put on my list of stylistic flaws to be eschewed and - it is hoped, at least by me - more vigorous forms of expression are to be substituted. Mileage may be found to vary. :slight_smile:

There are perfectly good discursive reasons to use passive voice, too, in order to create better cohesion–reasons which don’t obscure the agency of the verbs.

In fact, often in scientific writing the agent is not important or relevant, such as in descriptions of the various steps which were taken in the process of a particular experiment or some research. To force active voice constructions into the discourse would become a distraction–it would become worse writing.

The academic researchers and report writers have a habit of taking it too far. If the study is, say, a psychology study involving human or animal subjects, excessive use of passive voice can make it hard for the reader to tell who did what. “Six colored blocks were set on the table. One at a time, they were moved from one side to the other.” Which of these actions did the researchers do? Which of these actions did the subjects do?

I was an assistant in a study of language acquisition in bottlenosed dolphins. The paper that was eventually published (Herman, L. M., Richards, D. G. & Wolz, J. P. (1984). Comprehension of sentences by bottlenosed dolphins. Cognition, 16, 129-219) was so passive that one couldn’t always be sure what the researchers did and what the dolphins did. (Abstract. Note how passive even that is.)

I embrace the passive voice. Thanks to the tyranny of Microsoft Word a lot of people believe it is grammatically incorrect. Its a stylistic choice and in some circumstances it is better off avoided, but it is a legitimate language construct.

The passive voice is super useful for maintaining focus. There’s a difference between “the ball broke the window” and “the window was broken by the ball.” If the focus of my story, essay, or paragraph was on the ball the former would be a good choice. If my focus was heavily on the window, it may be jarring to switch up the topic unless I really was making a topic change to now focus on the ball.

The last time this topic came up, I recommended John Gardner’s excellent and fun-to-read The Art of Fiction.

However, Gardner’s strong views on use of the passive voice in fiction may seem extreme.

I can see where it would be useful in deflecting the possibility of blame from oneself; should one wish for that deflection to result in the laying of blame upon a specific individual toward whom one feels enmity, I submit that one would be better served by the use of passive-aggressive voice.

“One” is the impersonal pronoun; it has no particular connection with the passive voice.

That’s just a fault of omitted detail, really. Admittedly, the passive voice perhaps makes that an easier mistake.

It’s really about flexibility. Weak writers often return again and again to the passive voice because it sounds vaguely “writerly” to them. They can’t think of any other way to say something. They string passive sentences together in endless daisy-chains, awkwardly forming gerunds out of what should have been their verbs.

By forcing students to figure out how to put their passive sentences into the active voice, you teach them how to say things more than one way. This strengthens their writing in all sorts of ways.

Yes, clearly that’s an example of when it interferes with clarity. The point is that–either way–simplistic (dogmatic) application of strictures (e.g., Always avoid the passive voice, etc.) isn’t going to lead to better communication. Compare:

A) The subjects reacted positively when the researchers gave them the placebo.

B) The subjects reacted positively when (they were) given the placebo.
There’s no reason to chose A) simply because the subordinate clause is in active voice, and B), in fact, is more economical.

Well, yes, that’s what I mean above by “discursive reasons” for creating better cohesion.

One can’t just use single, isolated sentences (or clauses) as examples if you want to demonstrate why one should choose active over passive (or vice versa). When you string together a series of sentences, sometimes the passive becomes a better way to keep focus on the important ideas. This is because certain verbs are semantically preferable, but they also happen to collocate with subjects that are semantically distracting for the particular context at hand.

Right. “Avoid the passive voice” is a useful instruction for novice writers, who tend to overuse it excruciatingly. For experienced writers, passive voice has its place when you wish to emphasize certain words or vary sentence structure. There is no hard-and-fast rule.

Decades ago it used to be a virtual requirement that academic articles be written mostly in the passive voice, which could sound extremely artificial. Fortunately the fashion has shifted and many publications now allow or even encourage more direct writing. Some, however, still prefer passive constructions.

The grammatical subject of a sentence and its topic should be the same. The passive voice is an incredibly useful tool for making that happen, and it shouldn’t be avoided just because so many people overuse it.

Gower’s “Plain Words” is a great treatment of all the ways that we (as petty officials or department hacks) use stuffy language out of habit, to sound professional, but the result puts the audience to sleep and causes confusion. Passive voice is one of the big offenders, but it definitely has its uses. (Unfortunately, Gower’s book doesn’t quite follow its own suggestions. But the suggestions are still very good.)

And in certain formal settings, it’s necessary! For example, writing software requirements specifications, I often had to turn off that rule. I got in the habit of avoiding passive voice in general already, fortunately.

Bingo. This is also often true for technical documentation. However, in users’ guides, overuse of passive often makes it very difficult for the reader: “Am I supposed to do this or is IT?”

Thank goodness!

I’ll have to think about that, but I think you’re correct. I think the ball & window bit above is an example.

The passive voice is overused. It is not liked by me.

While it’s true that there is a time an place for passive voice, it’s also true that a wholesale reduction in passive voice – removing, say, 90% of its current occurrence – would still leave us with plenty of passive voice constructions. It’s abused to the point of self-parody.

Also, despite its widespread acceptance in technical and government writing, it often manages to obscure and fail to convey critical meaning even there. I see a lot of technical reports that say things like “The contractor, the Federal government and the local authorities agreed that X should be done. X was subsequently done.” But the purpose of that document turns out to be “find out which party accomplished, and paid for, X,” and that writing very specifically does NOT clarify who did X or paid for it.