Is the "passive" voice of a sentence so wrong?

I always check my spelling with MS Word and I will admit I’m a terrible speller and I like to turn on grammar check and see what grade level my writing is. I know neither the spell check or grammar check is flawless but it’s a tool.

One thing I constantly get is I write in the passive voice.

Now MS Word says it’s not wrong but it “encourages” you to write in the active voice

For example:

Don’t say “Joe had given Sam some ice,”

Say “Joe gave Same Ice”

Do we naturally write in the passive tone, or was this something that was at one time taught to us. I’m in my mid 30s and no one ever mentioned this “passive” thing in English class in High School or College. In fact I never heard of it until I got MS Word and grammar checked it

The “Joe had given Sam some ice” isn’t passive, it’s past perfect tense. “Sam was given ice” is passive. Passive tends to be used [passive!] in cases where the author doesn’t feel like citing an agent and is frowned on in academic writing. “It has been written that. . .” WHO WROTE THAT? It’s just something to look out for, as it’s a little lazy or sloppy looking and in certain cases looks weaselly.

Both “Joe had given Sam some ice” and “Joe gave Sam some ice” are in the active voice. The first is pluperfect, the second past tense. The passive forms would be: “Sam had been given some ice by Joe” and “Sam was given some Ice by Joe.”

If your high school was anything like mine, passive voice would have been a relatively advanced topic, so it was probably not repeatedly drilled into you. But I’m the same age as you are, and I remember it being mentioned at least a couple of times. Passive voice will be discussed in any grammar book, certainly.

The case can be summarized as follows: It’s a style issue. Passive sentences are not grammatically incorrect, but they’re discouraged in many forms of writing, because

a) they are slightly harder to parse (the subject appears late in the sentence compared to the active voice),

b) are often wordier than the active equivalent: “John gave George an apple.” vs. “An apple was given to George by John.”

c) They sound “weaselly” to many people’s ears.

Note that it’s rare to bump into a source that suggests eliminating passive voice altogether. It’s useful in some contexts (as the name implies, it sounds “passive,” and less judgmental), but even in everyday writing the goal is to reduce the ratio of passive to active sentences, not eliminate the passive ones altogether. This post, for example, has a few examples of passive sentences in it.

It’s politicians’ favorite tense - the passive exonerative: *Mistakes were made. *

Also it puts people to sleep. Another reason politicians like it when they’re delivering bad news. But its soporific qualities are the main reason Word is gonna flag it.

A thread where the passive voice was discussed.

If you’d like more information about passive voice and other writing issues, the book “Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace” is well worth checking out.

Active voice is more . . . active. Writing is easier to understand when you use simple declarative sentences.

This doesn’t mean that passive voice is wrong, and no real authority would say so. The overuse of passive is more the problem – it becomes wordy and harder to follow. It also obscures responsibility.

There are, however, plenty of times when the passive voice is preferable. It used to be required for scientific papers, for instance (“Water was added to the acid*”) on the assumption that by avoiding “I” and “We” the report was more objective. There are other times when the passive is a better choice.

*Don’t try this at home).

Kevbabe is a long time Government employee. Passive voice has become so deeply engrained, that she seldom uses any thing else. Not one of her more endearing traits.

Basically, passive voice obscures the subject, and fails to assign any responibility or cause for what transpired. Fantastic device for spreading rumor.

“It was thought that …”

This is the result of insufficient teaching. Passive voice is not wrong, or poor grammar, or anything of the sort. Sometimes passive voice is overused or used in the wrong context; when overused, it makes the text heavy. You just have to have a bit of an ear for when it’s appropriate. In most cases, it will work well if you use it where you would naturally have used it in speech.

Here’s an example where passive voice would be appropriate: This painting was given to the Museum by Lord Arbuthnot in 1791. It’s appropriate because you’re starting with the painting, which is what the sentence is about; you’re drawing attention to the painting. The active voice, “Lord Arbuthnot gave this painting to the Museum in 1791”, is also possible, but it would be more appropriate later in the paragraph when you have already introduced the painting; or else if you are mainly talking about Lord Arbuthnot, not the painting. This is style we’re discussing, so these are judgment calls, not matters about which clear rules exist.

“It’s raining”

What is raining?”

Yes. The passive voice is used by people who want to obscure who actually performed an action. Often they want to evade responsibility for something.

There are times when the passive voice is perfectly appropriate, such as on reports where the authors of actions are already known. Repeatedly identifying the actors would just obscure the actions themselves, when the actions are the actual subjects of the report.

"Report, by Joe and Eileen.

…Step 5. The three chemicals were mixed in the red beaker.
Step 6. 150 mL of water was poured into the red beaker.
Step 7. The mixture was heated to 75C…"

The weather is raining.

Passive voice was frowned at in journalism classes.

Uh, I mean journalism teachers objected to students’ use of passive voice in many cases.

One of my profs (maybe more than one) referred to something called, approximately, the “unnamed agent.” Wish I could remember the true name; “agent” was part of it but I don’t think “unnamed” is the right term, although it’s the right thought. It was something that sounded a little more mysterious. Use too many passive sentences with an unnamed agent in writing a news story and you end up with a news story where nobody admitted to anything, and that’s not news–it’s opinion.

But it was okay if the perpetrator was unknown, i.e., “The liquor store at 1st and Main was robbed last night and the proprietor bludgeoned by the assailant” is acceptable, possibly even more acceptable than “An unknown assailant robbed the liquor store at 1st and Main last night…” because the “who” part of “who what when where how” is unknown.

The passive voice gives the object of the sentence the more prominant place. In the aforemore mentioned case with the painting, no one really cares about who gave it, other than in passing, where as the painting is front and center. And in my field (chemistry) the active voice is frowned upon.

There are times when the passive voice is perferable, and times when it is unavoidabe. But in general, the active voice generates a “stronger” text. And when most of us write, we are looking to write strong forceful and convincing texts. The passive and active voices are both tools writers can use. The key is, like all tools, to know when and why you are using them.

150 mL of water WERE poured, dangit.

“of water” is a modifier, the main noun, incredible as it sounds, is the mililiters. Sheesh…

(sorry, pet peeve. I’m a chemist)

What if it was 0.15 L of water? Is that plural or singular?

Singular, the noun is liter.

The passive voice is useful in science, where the results matter more than the person performing the experiment. In politics it sounds like an evasion. “Mistakes were made.” By whom?