“You are loved.” Writing that in a valentine to your beloved instead of “I love you” likely will have a similar effect as giving a bouquet of roses with petals that are curling and turning brown — the thought may be there, but the desired effect loses some of its impact.
That’s what can happen with passive voice. Who is actually doing the action becomes hazy. Sometimes you want or need the subject to be ambiguous or want to emphasize the object, in which case passive constructions make sense.
But too often, writers use passive voice unconsciously, leading to awkward, vague or bloated sentences that make the meaning harder to understand. Passive voice can also convey a sense of hedging — probably not the best message to send in a valentine.
Before fixing passive voice, you have to know what it is. Below, we look at what it is, what it isn’t and how to identify it.
What It Is
In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the doer — it acts on or affects the object. In the passive voice, it’s the other way around — the object becomes the subject. Sometimes it switches places with the subject, as in this example:
Technology, process management, outsourcing, partnering and other strategies are being used proactively by forward-thinking firms to remain competitive.
And sometimes the subject doesn’t appear at all:
Technology, process management, outsourcing, partnering and other strategies are being used proactively to remain competitive.
This sentence comes from a piece offering business development services to law firms. Marketing communications are supposed to target a specific audience. In this case, the audience (forward-thinking firms) is buried, which dilutes the sentence’s impact. Consider this alternative, which places the prospect front and center:
Forward-thinking firms are proactively using technology, process management, outsourcing, partnering and other strategies to remain competitive.
What It Isn’t
Because passive constructions use a form of the verb “to be,” many mistakenly believe that any construction using a “to be” verb form is passive. For example:
There were numerous reasons for the decline in the third quarter.
Although the sentence uses a form of “to be” (were) and the subject (decline) has shifted from its rightful position at the beginning of the sentence in the same way it does with passive voice, the culprit here isn’t passive voice. It’s the false subject (There), which we talked about in a previous post. A version of this sentence using a passive construction would look like this:
Numerous reasons were given for the decline in the third quarter.
Both sentences are vague about the source of the reasons for the decline, but the first sentence focuses on the reasons, while the second sentence focuses on the unnamed source who provided the reasons — a subtle but important distinction that shows how we often communicate more than we intend with words alone.
How to Identify It
Rooting out passive voice can sometimes be tricky, and people frequently get it wrong. Here’s a nearly fail-safe tip for identifying it:
TIP: Passive voice is present if “by ________” follows the verb or where you can ask the question “by whom/what?”
We need this budget approved BY management. (Active: Management needs to approve this budget.)
We need to get this budget approved. By whom?
The copier needs to be fixed. By whom?
The copier has been fixed BY the vendor. (Active: The vendor fixed the copier.)
When Is Passive Voice OK
For all the rancor it elicits among language purists and editors, passive voice is not grammatically incorrect. In fact, it’s warranted in some circumstances:
- To give more weight to the object than the subject: For example, in “My mom was just diagnosed with cancer,” the fact of the diagnosis is far more important than who made the diagnosis. But if who made the diagnosis is the focus, the active construction works better: “The oncologist just confirmed my mom has cancer after that quack said she was in the clear.”
- When the subject is vague or unknown: “The victim was robbed at gunpoint.”
In other instances, despite not being necessarily warranted, the use of passive voice is widespread, typically for these reasons:
- To distance the doer from the action: “Errors were made.” “Ten percent of the workforce will have to be terminated.” “You must pay your bill within 10 days, or your phone service will be shut off.” Such constructions are common in business and political communications.
- Tradition: Particularly in science and technology, the longtime standard was for authors to distance themselves from their findings by using passive voice (e.g., “The test results were analyzed,” “It was concluded”). The same has been true for legal writing. Despite efforts by the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, legal writing guru Bryan Garner, numerous trade journals, the federal government and others to promote the use of active voice, pesky passives persist.
Sometimes passive voice works best. But the choice should be a conscious one and not based on “this is the way we’ve always done it” or, worse, on no reasoning at all.
What’s your perspective on passives? Let us know in the comments below.