Each month I send out a basic lesson to my freelance writers reminding them of general style and editorial guidelines that may atrophy over time. I reprint them here in case they, or anyone, wishes to revisit the material outside its original email format. Header image courtesy Tycho

Why The Passive Voice Is Bullied Mercilessly

“The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” 
– Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (sorry)

 

“I think timid writers like [passive voice] for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close his eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyers’ torts majestic, I guess it does.”
– Stephen King, On Writing

 

“We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice — that is, until we have stopped saying “It got lost,” and say, “I lost it.”
 Sydney J. Harris

 

People, especially people who write “professionally,” do not like passive voice. Why? Many reasons. The passive voice (as opposed to active voice or voices that employ linking verbs like ‘is’ or ‘are’) fails in three key arenas:
– Passive sentences are longer as they require a helping verb.
– Passive sentences are confusing.
– Passive sentences are lazy and avoid attributing actions to parties.

 

All of these hold truth with few exceptions. But let’s focus on a complaint that’s much more basic: people don’t think in passive sentences. And when a writer uses passive sentences, he or she introduces an unnecessary cognitive hurdle to the reader that creates more work for understanding basic concepts.

 

Let’s use a familiar example: The passive voice is bullied mercilessly(Bonus: do we need to use the adverb ‘mercilessly’?)

 

In the beautiful relationship of cause and effect, none exists here. Who’s bullying the passive voice mercilessly? Can the reader infer the reason why it might be bullied, as no bullying party is listed (ha)? When a writer uses passive voice, she or he side-steps logic. Imagine that writing is a series of dominos tipping forward, or a stream of logic flowing through a pipe system. Passive voice forces the reader to reverse the current of thought, attaching an action and verb to a subject after the subject introduces itself in the sentence. It’s simply unintuitive writing. In active voice, understanding drives in a direct line through subject and verb.

 

Among the above complaints, the third trespass (passive sentences are lazy and avoid attributing actions to parties) lands passive voice in the hottest of waters. If writers construct passive sentences, they should at least attribute an acting party in the predicate. For example: The passive voice is bullied mercilessly by caffeinated capybaras. Now we clearly understand that caffeinated capybaras bully the passive voice, as opposed to ethereal demonic forces unseen by the human eye, too horrible to describe in words.
This is a two-month old chihuahua puppy named Conor Oberst. He only writes in passive voice.

This is a two-month old chihuahua puppy named Conor Oberst. He only writes in passive voice.

A (Rare) Time To Use the Passive Voice

Despite the fiery conviction above, pockets of controversy and ambiguity still surround the passive voice, with this writer’s favorite grammar-and-style gatekeeper even condoning its use (Roy Peter Clark also penned a book chapter titled “Activate Your Verbs”). Are there circumstances when passive voice is preferable to active voice? Yes. Clark suggests that writers “use passive verbs to showcase the ‘victim’ of action.” In other words, when the subject is the most important element of a sentence, it’s acceptable to use passive sentences. Take the example Clark uses in Writing Tools: “His pale eyes were frosted with sun glare.” Let’s convert that sentence to active voice: “The sun glare frosted his pale eyes.” Contextually (the sentence is borrowed from Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America) the man is the central focus of the paragraph—slipping into active voice would rob the prose of that focus.

Constance Hale of The New York Times (who Clark also cites in the linked article above) reiterates Clark’s sentiment, stating that “the passive voice works well when we intend to emphasize that a subject is not a ‘doer’ but a ‘done-to’.” Allow me to subvert my previous condemnation that the passive voice excuses the writer from naming the acting party; Hale also says the passive voice is useful when the writer wants to leave that identity obscured. We’re not writing mystery novels, but if we were we could include sentences like, “The body was dug up and dragged over the barbed graveyard fence” with renewed menace.

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The Pseudo-Divine Voice Is Heresy 

Within the above classifications, one heinous genre stands out above all others. Let’s call it the pseudo-divine voice. I just made it up. Pseudo-divine sentences begin with the following words:

“It is…”

“It becomes…”

“There is…”

“There are…”

Most mythological and world-builder stories begin with the above clauses, though their ingredients aren’t technically the same (“It” is a pronoun whereas “There” is an adverb in most cases). For instance: And there was evening, and there was morning— Genesis 1. These sentences are pseudo-divine because the author is willing the object into existence sans context. If any writer is a deity with the ability to conjure strata from the void, my apologies. These sentences fall under the severe definition of unnecessary in most cases: their function is to announce that something or someone simply…exists. Pseudo-Divine sentences can usually be avoided by including the direct object as the subject of the following sentence. I know, that’s a mouthful. Here’s an example:

There are seven puppies.

They enjoy chasing caffeinated capybaras

Seven puppies enjoy chasing caffeinated capybaras.

It happens.

It happens.

 

Look how every word tells; Strunk & White would be proud. Are there circumstances when a sentence could reasonably start with “There is…” or “It is…”? Yes. Does “it” refer to a previous noun and front an obvious actor? Not a problem. If a huge intangible truth needs an ominous introduction, feel free to invoke divinity.

A plucky group of writers named Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, John Adams, and Robert Livingston once wrote an article with the opening led: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” The piece has done pretty well.