Writers: Is Passive Sentence Construction ALWAYS Bad?

I write a financial column for a monthly magazine. In completing my latest piece, a friend told me, “You used passive wording in these three sentences.” Not knowing what I was talking about, I bluffed, “Passive construction is sometimes okay, perhaps even desirable, in certain cases.” Later I got to thinking about it and think I was right.

One of my sentences read something like: “President Bush was presented an award by a local elementary school class…”

My friend said I should have written it, “A local elementary school class presented an award to President Bush.” Problem is, that would give priority to high schoolers rather than the US president.

And so, tell me. Are there occasions when passive sentence construction is desirable–that it makes for a smoother sentence–or is the old college rule ironclad?

It’s a matter of opinion, and I agree with you. Active voice should always be used when giving an emphatic command. For example, “Press the red button.” But it can then be mixed with passive voice to indicate the passive role of the reader. For instance, “The printer will load a sheet of paper and then print the report.”

I think it depends upon the type of writing you’re doing. For example, I write a lot of legal memoranda. Frequent use passive voice undercuts the clarity and effectiveness of the arguments I’m presenting. That’s why I try to make sure passive sentences make up no more than 20% of my brief.

If your friend was simply mouthing a rule, “passive voice is wrong,” then pay no attention. But perhaps your friend was actually a perceptive editor who saw that your column seemed flat and distant.

FWIW, I would agree that if the point of the sentence you quote is to emphasize President Bush then you have written it correctly. What you need to do is to look at the other two passive sentences to see whether they are constructed similarly to convey your meaning or whether they could be be made active to sharpen them.

Every “rule” can be broken by someone who understands when an exception improves the writing. That imposes a burden upon you, the writer. If you are wrong in your presumption, you will be punished for it. If you’re right, then you are truly a writer.

Exapno Mapcase summarizes the point.

Excessive use of the passive voice tends to make your prose flat and uninteresting to read, but to construct a sentence in a way that makes the focal point of the sentence the grammatical subject of the sentence as well is nearly always a good idea.

“War with Iraq was opposed by 38%, 49%, and 74% of Americans in polls conducted by the Gallup and Roper polling organizations and the Washington Post respectively.” The focus of the sentence is clearly on Americans’ opposition to the war; to make the polling groups into a compound subject so as to cast the sentence in active voice shifts emphasis to them rather than to the topic and results of the pools. In a paper analyzing the vast differences that different polling techniques can come up with on the same questions, turning it around to place the emphasis on the three groups and the varying numbers they arrived at would be appropriate.

I work as a copy editor on a small daily paper. We prefer active voice whenever possible, but are not fanatic about it. Sometimes portions of the story can be told in passive voice. But our oldest reporter (35 years on the job, now in his 60s) was trained to write in the passive voice, and I often rewrite his copy, particularly his leads.

Newspaper writing is a narrow category. Our goals may not match those of other publications.

So, you’re saying: “If you want to emphasize a particular subject, start the sentence with that subject, even if doing so makes the sentence construction passive”?

BTW, an editor of a medical journal told me: “Passive sentence construction shows (or emphasizes?) causality better than the active form.” I still can’t think of how that is true.

NDPWhy write ANY of your legal brief passively? Wouldn’t 100 % active make for the strongest delivery?

Exapno Mapcase, if indeed “every ‘rule’ can be broken by someone who understands when an exception improves the writing”, why isn’t this taught in college? Why are the rules enforced is such an unforgiving manner? Hell, I think my writing is lively, but this inner voice keeps chanting in my ear: “You’re breaking the rules again!”

BTW, as a stylistic rule, scientific monographs are nearly always written totally in the passive voice.

“The femur of the Cecilosaurus was then removed from the matrix, and measured 933.6 cm by 84.2 cm diameter at the upper condyle.” Not “We then removed the femur…” Focus is completely on the object researched, not on the researcher.

Yep. Insofar as there is a rule, that would be it. But even that is deserving of being broken from time to time – simply for variety in your prose style. (Notice how I constructed that last sentence?)

Because before you can know when to break a rule, you have to know exactly why that rule exsists. In my experience, it was high schools that was really pedantic about passive voice or dangling participles. By college, I was already expected to know that stuff. 'Course, I was a major English major geek and skipped all the Frosh English courses.

That last sentence’ll scan okay if you give it a few goes.

There are times when a “rule” simply won’t produce a good sentence for you and therefore must be broken. As a corollary, consider what happened in Beavis and Butthead do America, when they tried to make a sentence end without a preposition and wound up making a mess of it. Instead of talking about the trailer that Beavis had been whacking off in, they mentioned the trailer off in which he was whacking–or some such gobbledygook.

Well, it’s the only example this prof can come up with at such a late hour. I haven’t had da noive to use it in class yet. :wink:

What the agent meant to say was, of course, “Chief, you remember those kids who were whacking off, and the trailer wherein their actions occured?”

There’s really no excuse for such sloppy grammar.

And when Aerosmith sang “My get up and go must have got up and went,” they should have said “gone” instead of “went.”

Because, when you write legal memoranda, you often have to quote chunks of prior legal opinions which usually have quite a few passive sentences in them. When I mentioned I tried to keep the percentage of passive sentences in my brief under 20%, I was including quoted passages (my Grammar Check, when reviewing my brief, doesn’t separate the original and quoted parts).

Also, for stylistic reasons, sometimes a passive sentence is more effective than an active one. It all depends on context.

Wrong! it’s Aerosmith, they make the rules with their God like status :wink:

Someone who understands when an exception improves the writing can break any “rule.” If you are wrong in your presumption, your audience will punish you for it.

Basically, what everyone else said. Unless the column was exactly six sentences long, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with using the passive in three of them. Microsoft Word has an annoying habit of always suggesting the active construction, which is why I turned off the grammar check soon after I installed it. Sometimes, as in the cases already mentioned where you’re trying to put emphasis on the object of the sentence instead of the subject, using the passive is preferred. And even when it’s an arbitrary choice, it helps the rhythm of a piece of writing when you toss in the passive tense, sparingly. Otherwise, it can sound mechanical, as if you’re writing instructions instead of putting your thoughts into words.

One of the best English teachers I ever had made sure to qualify each of the “rules” we were given in our textbook, to help us keep our writing from coming off as forced or mechanical. The textbook declared that any list of three or more items should be separated by commas until the final item is separated with an “and” as in: item one, item two and item three. My teacher then showed us a poem that used “item one and item two and item three,” and made sure we understood how it was effective when used by a writer who knew what she was doing.

Personally, i think that an uncompromising insistence on the active voice smacks of pedantry. This is the case with many other grammatical rules also, e.g. the use (or not) of the split infinitive.

But, with regard to ending sentences with a preposition, that is something up with which i will not put. :slight_smile:

IMHO, lawyers are the worst offenders in that regard. (Present company excepted.) Many seem to be under the impression that passive construction’s implementation allows for more intellectualization of their writings to be effectuated.

The italicised sentence (itals mine) is not passive voice.

My two-penn’orth: Over-use of the passive voice grates - especially in constructions such as “It has been decided that”, which always sounds to me as though the speaker is trying to obfuscate the question of exactly who it was that did the deciding. On the other hand, twisting yourself in unnatural knots is no wiser; and it depends on what you’re trying to convey. You can probably make up examples for yourself.

“It has been decided…” is a good example of how the choice of voice alters the connotation of the phrase. If it was “The committee have decided…” or “Joe Bloggs has decided…”, well, they’re reasonable people, you can talk to them and maybe change their minds. But “It has been decided…” moves the whole thing into the realm of the abstract and impersonal; “it” is now written in the book wherein all things are writ, “it” is now final, there is no appeal. This makes the passive the right choice, if that’s the impression you want to get across.

(I was, once, dinged for over-use of the passive in an academic paper. But that was due to an overly-eager supervisor more than anything; still, re-casting the sentence in question so that it was active voice but still completely impersonal was an … interesting … exercise. Mind you, I always felt that the academic style was an exercise in taking a fascinating topic and leaching out every last drop of interest or excitement in it … )

This is extremely useful in memo-writing as well, when you want to remove all traces of personal responsibility: “The negotiations were tabled indefinitely, as standard business practice was deemed to have not been followed. A procedural review will be conducted.” sounds better than “Joe showed up stinking drunk and vomited on the client, who vowed never to do business with us again. We’re firing his ass.”