Sunday, March 9, 2014

Can the Passive Voice Be Used Effectively?

According to some sections of the internet, using the passive voice is roughly equivalent to drowning cute puppies. They revile something that’s been part of most languages for as far back as language can be traced, and which somehow has never gone the way as unneeded distinctions, such as the dual number (to distinguish pairs from singular and plural) or the locative case (a different form of a noun that means you’re talking about where the thing is).

This prejudice is complicated by the fact that a large proportion of people who rage against the passive voice (including one or two professional editors) don’t seem to understand what it is. The common definition is that it’s when you combine the verb with part of the verb to be. That certainly happens in passive, but to give it as a definition is like saying Cows are animals that eat grass is the same as saying Animals that eat grass are cows. Not the same thing at all.

Verbs can be combined with to be for a variety of uses, but the most common, other than passive, is the imperfect or continuous past tense (I learnt the classical names for grammar at school, such as imperfect, but some are rarely used today). This is when you say He was running rather than He ran. It’s another unfairly reviled construction, often misused or overused, but with its proper use. Continuous past is used when you’re describing a process rather than a single act, especially when contrasted with a single act — He was running down the road when he tripped on a stone.

The passive is one of the three main “voices” a verb can be expressed in (there may be other obscure ones, but I haven’t heard of any). Active voice describes the subject doing the verb; passive voice describes the subject having the verb done to it; middle or reflexive voice describes the subject doing the verb to itself.

And that’s about all there is to it — apart from how and why the different voices are used, of course. Though middle should be fairly obvious, so I’ll concentrate on active and passive.

Consider the two sentences Fred hit John and John was hit by Fred. They describe exactly the same action, but they’re saying very different things about it. The first (active) is a sentence about Fred and describes his action of hitting. The second (passive) is a sentence about John and describes his experience of being hit.

In some forms of writing, the distinction isn’t all that important, and other considerations take precedence. The prejudice against passive seems to have started primarily in business writing, and it’s easy to see why. In business, it’s important to come over as positive and active and dynamic, otherwise the predators will tear you to pieces. (No, that’s in the jungle, isn’t it? On the other hand…) If you’re writing a business letter, you need to say I shall do bla-bla, not Bla-bla will be done. Subtle shades of meaning can go hang.

This doesn’t apply to creative writing, though. I could certainly imagine a novel where the author never stops being dynamic and bullish, but it could get tiring pretty quickly. Sometimes a degree of uncertainty and vulnerability add to the story’s tone. In one part of At An Uncertain Hour, for instance, the main character is made a slave for a while. Needless to say, his experience is of being powerless, of having things done to him, and I tried to express this by using as many passive sentences as possible. As he gradually takes back control of his own destiny, the use of passive decreases.

Consider another hypothetical example. You’re reading a story that features a powerful leader, but you get the feeling as you read that there’s something phony about all this strength. Sure enough, you eventually find that he’s a good deal less certain of himself than he seemed. But what gave you that impression? Perhaps the fact that many of the sentences describing him were in the passive voice.

Uncertainty isn’t the only reason to use passive. Sometimes, as with Fred and John, the issue is whom the sentence is actually about, and whether the important thing is to describe the action or the experience of receiving the action. The person performing the action might actually be unimportant, and to say Someone I never saw jostled me gives too much importance to an unknown and irrelevant person. The sentence is about me and my experience of the incident, which makes it more appropriate to say I was jostled by someone I never saw. It reads better, too.

Passive isn’t by any means always correct, of course, and part of the issue is that it’s one of the things (along with adverbs, another bugbear) that inexperienced writers often overuse. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong in itself, though. If you tried to use a hammer to insert a screw, the result would be awkward, but that isn’t the hammer’s fault. It’s the right tool when you need to bang a nail in.

Like most of the absolute “rules” floating around about writing circles, the anti-passive prejudice began with a kernel of useful caution and proceeded via misunderstanding and chinese whispers to a ridiculous restriction that cuts out a whole section of linguistic expression.  By all means, be cautious about using passive, but the solution to the proplem is to learn how to use it properly, not to avoid ever using it.

Passive is often used effectively.


  1. I agree with you about the absolute no-passive rule in publishing. I believe there is a time and place and when you use it consciously it can paint the picture better than active voice. Awesome post!

  2. Saying "My son is in the hospital because he was mauled by a bear" definitely conjures up a different feel than saying "A bear mauled my son, so he's in the hospital." I think in this case, most people would use the former construct, because their attention is on the one who was mauled. Not to mention that the second conjures up the possibility that the bear is the one who is in the hospital.

    I think of it as an indicator of where the attention is in a sentence. Most of the time, it will be on the one performing the action, but when writing in point of view, it makes sense sometimes to say "He (or I) was thrown against the wall."