Browsing the website of Hamilton College (New York), I was surprised to find the passive voice listed as the first of the seven deadly sins of writing. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its publication this year, has a simple direct recommendation: “Rule 14: Use the active voice”. The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers has a section on the misuse of the passive.
I also found that Linux Journal edits its content to remove all passive constructions. Its advice to its authors: “The passive voice should never be used by you”, a sentence that states the rule and breaks it too.
Most of us use active and passive forms as a matter of course, without having to pause and ponder over our choice. What is the passive voice? Is it non grata all the time? Today, there are academics who want us to reject the rules handed down to us by the old guard of grammarians.
A passive sentence is often thought of as a sentence derived by the transformation of an active construction. That approach is not helpful. At an English teachers’ workshop on grammar, I asked the participants to prepare an exercise on the active and passive voice structures. One of them came up with this sentence. Active: I drink coffee every morning. Passive: Coffee is drunk by me every morning. I said that I could not accept that example. He insisted it was right and correctly derived. I said, “If ever you find someone who says, ‘Coffee is drunk by me,’ bring him before me. I’d like to see him.”
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The lesson learnt from this example is that there are active verbs that resist the change into passive forms in real usage. “She combed her hair” changes into “Her hair was combed by her”. The passive form looks tangled and stilted. For more examples, try turning these sentences into the passive form:
• The robbers struck terror among the people of the village.
•He hurt himself.
• The guards let the prisoners escape
The active voice uses the subject-verb-object (SVO) order. S represents the actor and V represents the action. Since these are placed first, they receive emphasis. This construction is considered precise, direct, clear and powerful. Here is an example: “Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC”. The reader first notices Caesar and then his action. If the writer wants the reader to focus on Britain, he can use the passive form: “Britain was invaded by Caesar in 55 BC”.
Here, the actor is introduced using a prepositional phrase with “by”.
Good writers realize that the use of active or passive is not just a matter of good grammar, it is also a matter of style and clarity.
Why do people frown on the passive form? First, it weakens the action verb. The link between the action and the actor is slender. The passive sentence tends to be longer and loses its sharpness by including extra elements such as the past participle and the prepositional phrase with “by”.
Secondly, the use of the passive can give us awkward sentences such as “Payment is hoped to be made next week”. “A sensational atmosphere is attempted to be created”.
Thirdly, many introductory passive phrases in sentences are redundant. “It is believed that”, “it is supposed that” and “it is regretted that” can weaken the content that follows.
Fourthly, when the participle can also function as an adjective, there can be confusion. “Three chairs were broken” can be ambiguous. One meaning is “Three chairs were in a broken condition”. The second meaning is, “Three chairs were broken (by someone)”. Only the second is a true passive.
The most important objection to the use of the passive form is that it is used by people who want to conceal information about the doer of the action. The writer or speaker does not know or does not want the reader to know who performed the action signified by the verb.
The most widely discussed example is a sentence in Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address in 1987. Speaking about the Iran-Contra deal, he said, “We did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so.” Critics began asking why the president was not revealing the names of those who made these mistakes. Many US politicians have been accused of hiding behind the passive voice in an attempt to dodge accountability. President Barack Obama provided a counter-example in referring to the embarrassment of his nominating Senator Daschle to the cabinet. “I screwed up. I admit I was wrong.”
In sum, there is no need to eliminate the passive voice from our use of English. There are contexts in which it is appropriate, even necessary.
Our choice should depend on what we want to emphasize or de-emphasize in our writing.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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