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Passive Voice

(Why It is Evil and How to Recognize It.)

Two "voices" occur in English grammar: active voice and passive voice. The difference is subtle at first, but it's easy to master once the grammarian understands the basics. Examine the subject and the main verb in the two sentences below:

(A) The boy hit the ball.

(B) The ball was hit. (Or, "The ball was hit by the boy").

In sentence A, we might ask ourselves, what does the hitting? The answer is the subject, boy. That subject is actively performing the verb; it is actively "doing" the verb hit to a direct object (the ball). This virtuous sentence is in active voice.

In sentence B, we might ask ourselves what is the subject? (ball.) What is the subject doing? (Nothing.) The subject is not hitting anything else. So who exactly is doing the verb to hit? It is not clear unless we stick a prepositional phrase "by the boy" on the end of the sentence. The subject is passively sitting, doing nothing, while some outside agent performs the action (hitting). Since the subject of the sentence is passive grammatically, this sentence is passive voice.

Note: Sometimes the passive voice sentence is necessary when the speaker wants to hide the agent or obscure what occurs. For instance, a governor up for reelection might say, "In the last election, taxes were raised over the course of the year." The passive voice sentence hides the agent. It would be uncomfortable for him to tell potential voters, "In the last election, I raised taxes over the course of the year." In that last sentence, the one doing the action is painfully clear! This type of situation is one of the few times that passive form proves useful, albeit in a somewhat deceptive way I would discourage. You can also use passive voice to focus the reader’s attention on specific words or for variety’s sake.

In most other cases, it is better rhetoric to use active voice. It is a better choice for several reasons:

(1) Active voice sentences are often more concise than passive voice. Expressing the same idea in passive voice frequently takes 30% to 40% more words:

The fighter punched Ali and dodged the uppercut. (Active voice--8 words)

Ali was punched by the fighter, and then an uppercut was dodged by him. (Passive voice--14 words, about 40% longer)

In the last generation, the family built a new house and raised a new brood of children. (Active voice: 17 words)

In the last generation, a new house was built by the family, and a new brood of children was raised by them. (Passive voice--25 words, about 30% longer)

(2) Passive voice requires more "weak" words. It uses abstract words like is /am /are /was /were /being /been/has/have/had, the definite article (the), and prepositions like by and of. These are dull and colorless compared to concrete nouns, powerful verbs, and vivid adjectives. Good writers try to avoid these empty, weak words and replace them with strong words.

However, passive voice often traps writers. To make clear who is doing what, writers using passive voice must either tag unwieldy phrases at the end of clauses, such as "by so-and-so," or they must leave out this phrase and let the sentence become unclear.

The airplane was flown to Bermuda (by the pilot).

The crackers were eaten (by the puppy).

In the moonlight, the tango was danced (by the couple).

To be verbs and the prepositions do not add much to the sentence in terms of color. You could express the same idea in active voice with less length, but no lost content:

The pilot flew the airplane to Bermuda.

The puppy ate the crackers.

In the moonlight, the couple danced the tango.

Remember, the heart of your sentence beats in its strong verbs, concrete nouns, and vivid description! Prepositions and articles can become dead weight. If you understand that, your writing will be more direct and powerful if fewer prepositions and articles clog your sentences. Using active voice consistently is one way to ensure that doesn't happen.

(3) The passive voice clause can be confusing or unclear, especially in long sentences.

My car has been driven to Dallas.

(By whom? By the speaker? By a car-thief? By the teletubbies?)

Sixteen thousand calories were consumed in one sitting.

(Who is doing this monstrous act of dietary vandalism?)

Five FBI agents entered the room, and the terrorist was plastered against the wall.

(Does that mean the five FBI agents plastered the terrorist against the wall? Or does it mean when the five FBI agents entered the room, the terrorist had plastered himself against the wall? Or did someone else entirely plaster the terrorist against the wall before the FBI arrived? It is impossible to tell with passive voice structure in the last clause.)

However, the author frequently doesn't know who did the action either.The agent doing the action might truly be unknown.

A woman was mugged last night in Las Vegas.

My diary has been stolen!

In sentences like these, it is difficult to assert whether it would be better to leave the passive voice (which in this case is fairly concise), or to add active voice structure (which in these cases, adds extra length). When in doubt, stick with active voice.

An assailant mugged a woman last night in Las Vegas.

A thief stole my diary!

(4) Passive voice often leads to awkward or stilted writing, especially in academic arguments in which the student dons a "pseudo-scholarly" tone.

When a reason is to be considered by readers for an argument that has been made by a writer, it is fitting that their analysis be based upon the latest statistical evidence.

If consensus cannot be reached, compromises should be made, and then negotiations should be undertaken by both parties with arbitration done by an outside listener.

Ugh! What lousy sentences! It hurts my head to read them. These sound more like jumbled "scholarese" rather than useful, direct, rhetorical exhortations. If sentence after sentence appears in this twisted format, the writer will drive the reader insane with his contorted, artificial syntax. Nobody speaks that way, so why write that way?

(5) Linguistic studies show that native English speakers are better able to remember material they read in active voice than the same material in passive voice. Something about the English speaker's mind remains geared toward a "Subject-Verb-Object" pattern. Passive voice sentences somehow derail that mental process of retention. If you want your readers to remember what you write, use active voice. If they better remember the material you spent so much time writing, you have a better chance at creating an argument that will stick with them and change their way of thinking.

Three Warning Signs of the Unholy Sentence Construction (Passive Voice)

Ask yourself three questions to identify the evil sentence. If the sentence fails all three rules, you spot the dreaded passive voice, cleanse your paper from its infernal taint by converting the sentence to active voice:

1. Verb Test: Look for helping verbs, especially forms of the verb "to be" in the sentence, such as is/ am/ are/ was/ were/ be/ being /been/ have/ had /has? (Passive voice clauses usually have or imply one.)

2. Zombie Test: Could one insert the phrase "by zombies" after the verb? If so, would the sentence still make grammatical sense? If so, you might have passive voice. For instance, "the dog was fed" (by zombies).

3. Agency Test: In the case of action verbs, identify the subject and the main verb(s) in the clause. Does the subject sit passively while some outside agent does the action to it? If so, it's passive voice.

Passive Voice Exercise:

Egad! Some grammatical vandal has converted E. B. White's active voice sentences into passive voice structure. Rescue his writing! Convert the passage to active voice, and compare the two.

Exercise A:

One summer, along about 1904, a camp was rented by my father on a lake in Maine, and we were taken there for the month of August. Ringworm was gotten from some kittens, and Pond's Extract had to be rubbed on our arms and legs night and morning, and a canoe was rolled over in by my father with all his clothes on; outside of that the vacation was thought to be a success, and from then on it was thought that there was no place like that lake in Maine. It was returned to summer after summer--always on the first of August for one month. Since then a saltwater man has been made out of me, but sometimes in summer I am made to wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods by the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water in the afternoon and evening, which is blown across by the incessant wind. A few weeks ago this feeling was experienced by me so strongly that a couple of bass hooks and a spinner were bought and the lake that used to be visited by us was returned to by me for a week's fishing to be done and for old haunts to be revisited.

--adapted from "Once More to the Lake," by E. B. White.

(Forgive, me, Mr. White, for the stylistic blasphemy I have made of your work.)

Exercise B:

Convert the following to active voice and hear how much easier it is to understand!

My dating life has been ruined by my new room mate, Joey. Joey's not a rude guy, or anything. Far from it, he's actually friendly and good-natured. Women are driven from my life by his lack of house cleaning. Our apartment is the social equivalent of a cancerous tumor. When the building is entered by one of my dates, the first object that is noticed by her is that a trashcan is moldered in by an apple half-eaten by someone. The edge of the television is drooped over by a slice of week-old pizza. She is buzzed at angrily by a swarm of flies, before a pile of unwashed socks is settled back down on by them. Perhaps those socks gleamed white in some distant age, fresh from K-Mart, but no longer. Visitors are nauseated by the smell; the coup de grace is administered by that part. When the apartment is entered by a woman, the girl is fought back against by the apartment. Invaders are driven off by Joey's slovenliness far more effectively than any security system. Sure, small talk will be made by the girl for a while, whose nose is wrinkled up by her. Sure, a drink or two will be had, and the bottle and glass eyed suspiciously for unidentifiable stains. The problem is that the apartment is never stayed in long by her, and my phone calls are never returned by her afterward. A new room mate is needed by me. Otherwise, my love life will be destroyed by Joey.

Click here to download a PDF handout discussing the same material.

Click here to download a PDF handout with a passive voice exercise.


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