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Passive Voice Vs Active Voice

Grammar Tips passive voice

Toni’s Notes is a compilation of grammar tips usually written written by professional proofreader and editor, Antonia Medhurst. This particular Toni’s Note is written by Dana Flannery who is here to defend Passive Voice!

Speaking up for Passive Voice

This week we had a reason to open up the Passive Voice Vs Active Voice debate and I thought I’d take a moment to defend old Passive Voice!  A client request his copy be rewritten almost entirely in passive voice. I am not a practical grammar expert; I am more of a grammar theorist. In fact, when Cate or Antonia (our proofreaders) send back drafts, there are so many comments that it raises my blood pressure.  I do know the theory – I just choose not to exercise it.  Passive voice is to the writing world what Comic Sans font is to well, everyone – something we’ve all used, that we abhor in the professional world, and yet there’s something simple and friendly about it…. It’s got that Comic Sans bad reputation. When they see it, editors cringe like a designer faced with a Comic Sans funeral notice. But, is it ever OK to use Passive Voice?

Passive Voice Vs Active Voice

Passive voice is a sentence structure where something/someone has something done to it and active voice, where someone does something.

Passive Voice Example: 

“The ball was kicked by Johnny”.

Active Voice Example:

“Johnny kicked the ball”.

Why is it the most hated piece of grammar?

Passive voice changes the tone of writing, it makes it sound wishy washy and it’s just bad grammar. Mostly though, it’s hated because of the way people use it.  Here are some examples of passive voice and its use:

To tell a lie: “Mistakes were made” as opposed to “I made mistakes”. If a politician is speaking in passive voice, chances are they’re concealing the truth. George Bush spoke almost exclusively in passive voice and don’t get me started on Tony Abbott.

To hide ignorance: “America was discovered” as opposed to “Columbus discovered America”.

To sugar coat the truth: “The game was lost” as opposed to “We lost”

To conceal bad science or research: This one is my favourite. Where oh where would cosmetic companies be without passive voice? “wrinkles are visibly reduced”. Oh dear. Not only are they not “actually reduced” nobody is saying “Our product visibly reduces wrinkles”.

So when is it OK to use passive voice?

I believe there are some “accepted” uses of passive voice. These examples show how passive voice can enhance written communication rather than muddy meaning:

1. Example: When the subject is unknown, implied or irrelevant

  • The civilisation was discovered in 1427 (An unknown ship captain discovered the civilisation in 1427).
  • The documents were released in December (The Compliance Team in conjunction with the Risk Management team in the Department of Natural Resources, Division of North Queensland Forestry Management released the documents in December.)
  • Chinese is widely thought to be the mother tongue of most North East Asian languages. (Some people think that Chinese is the mother tongue….)

2. Example: When you need to conceal something from the audience

“Gunshots were heard” (Jane Smith heard gun shots)

3. Example: For “creative” merit.

Dawn was painted a pretty pink…. (It was pink at dawn)

4. Example: In the adjectival form

He was happy to find the child safe and well. (Finding the child safe and well made him happy)

5. Example: For cognitive or abstract situations

He was known to be an honest man. (Everyone knew him as honest)
6. Example: Third person and formal English

“Attention to detail is paramount in all ABC Accounting’s Work” (ABC Accounting’s work… just doesn’t work)

Is the hate of passive voice a trend?

It’s an odd situation because passive voice was perfectly acceptable in days gone by – most translations of the bible for example, are full of passive voice – and there are still plenty of situations where it is appropriate and sounds more natural but it’s extremely uncool in writing circles.

So is it hated for life or is this “anti-passivism” simply a trend in writing? I personally avoid it because my clients expect that, but am a big believer in “organic English” where English evolves to be as accessible and versatile as possible – although it makes it hard to learn the language when every rule has an exception, it also makes for a more vibrant, descriptive and intuitive language for those who speak it.

In written form though, it’s always best to be clear, no matter what you’re writing. In sales copy, using passive voice is essentially saying “we’re hiding the truth”. In the Passive Voice Vs Active Voice debate therefore, Active must win! In spoken English, it may be natural to default back to passive voice but in writing, passive voice promotes ambiguity. I however, have a soft spot for passive voice, the poor old Comic Sans of the written word.