The Passive Voice Is Nothing to Fear

LeBron James taking a shot against the LA Lakers

The passive voice is one of the most popular no-nos for good English writing. Most style guides—and writing software like Microsoft Word and Grammarly—will tell you: avoid using the passive voice in your writing. But the passive voice is often used to great effect (as it is in this very sentence).

What Is It?

The passive voice is a grammatical construction in which the recipient of the action (linguists call this the client) is the subject of the sentence rather than the object. Sentences in the active voice, by contrast, make the performer of the action (the agent) the subject. Here are some examples of what I mean:

(1) LeBron threw the ball.

In the above sentence, LeBron is both the agent and the subject; he is the one throwing. The ball is the agent and the object, the object LeBron is throwing. This sentence is in the active voice.

(2) The ball was thrown by LeBron.

In sentence (2), the client/object is the subject of the sentence, and the agent is identified only through a prepositional phrase with by. This is a sentence in the passive voice.

The Common Objection

Most writing and style guides will discourage you from using the passive voice in your writing. Even your Microsoft Word will underline your text in green or blue to encourage you to change your writing to avoid the passive.

The main objection to the use of the passive is that it is weaker and less direct than the active voice. Instead of saying The ball was thrown by LeBron, just say, LeBron threw the ball. It’s more direct and to the point.

An additional critique of the passive is that it often obscures the agent. Sometimes, of course, obscuring the agent is intentional. When people say, “I have been told that you don’t enjoy my lectures,” or, as a spokesman for the Reagan Administration famously said, “Mistakes were made,” it has the effect of obscuring the truth of the matter. Who told you? Who made the mistake?

In such cases, the passive can be seen as wishy-washy or avoidant, which only makes your writing appear weaker.

Some Reasons to Use the Passive

Nevertheless, the passive does have its uses.

In religious writings, the passive is often used as a way of talking about God without saying God directly for reasons of piety. When a religious text says, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” it is reasonable to ask, “By whom?” The unspoken agent in this context is God.

Now, most of us will not be in a position to write sacred scripture, but there are other uses that the passive is good for.

One of the best reasons is to keep the flow of a paragraph. As I noted in another article, a simple trick for better writing is to ensure that the subject of every sentence in the paragraph is the same. This increases the comprehensibility of the text and builds what are called “arcs of coherence.”

For example, let’s say you’re writing a paragraph about Buffalo wings. You might write it like this:

Buffalo wings are a staple of the Western New York diet and a source of pride for Buffalonians. Teressa Bellissimo invented the Buffalo wing as an impromptu snack at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, in 1964. Since that time, Buffalo wings have become a favorite around the United States and the world. People still argue about whether you should use blue cheese or ranch dressing as a dip for the wings.

That paragraph has a lot of information in it, but it feels a little disjointed because the subject of each sentence is different from the one before it: Buffalo wings, Teressa, wings, and people. To improve the flow, the passive voice can be employed:

Buffalo wings are a staple of the Western New York diet and a source of pride for Buffalonians. They were invented in 1964, by Teressa Bellissimo as an impromptu snack at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. Since that time, Buffalo wings have become a favorite around the United States and the world. Whether the wings should be eaten with blue cheese or ranch dressing is something that people still debate.

Here, the use of two simple passive constructions—were invented and be eaten—improves the readability of the paragraph a great deal.

In addition, the passive voice can be used as a way to avoid a certain monotony in your writing. If every sentence is phrased and structured the same way, your reader might get bored. Switching to the passive can not only improve the flow, as seen above, but can also improve the variety in your writing.

The Final Word

As always, clarity is paramount in your writing. If using the passive voice obscures your meaning or makes the agent of an action less clear, then don’t use it. But if you’re looking for a way to improve the flow of your paragraphs or provide some stylistic variety, then the passive voice is nothing to fear.

Show, Don’t Tell

Chalkboard with writing "Today: Show and Tell"
new york barge
Lower Manhattan, well after the Dutch. Photo by Seva Kruhlov on Pexels.com

There are a lot of things to keep straight when you’re writing a story: characters, plot, setting, timeline, names, language, background, and more. It’s a lot of information that you have to keep track of—and a lot of information to convey to your readers.

Given that, it can be tempting to dump all of that information in large blocks of exposition or in character descriptions rather than communicating that information in the narrative. But the advice given to filmmakers and playwrights is just as relevant for writers: show, don’t tell.

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Minding Your aPostrophes and Quotation Marks

’ (apostrophe) vs. ‘ (single quotation mark)

In the old days of writing with a typewriter, there was no option to distinguish between an apostrophe ( ’ ) and a single quotation mark ( ‘ )—they were typed with the same key that produced the same character meant for both situations: ( ' ).

The only people who had to worry about distinguishing between them were professional typesetters, and they knew what they were doing.

But then along came Microsoft Word and other word processing software, which offered the user the option to choose to add “typographer’s quotes” (sometimes called “smart quotes” or “curly quotes”) automatically. What this meant was that you could type "quotes" and it would render what you’d typed as “quotes.” If you wrote you're, it’d render it as you’re. This was a pretty nice feature.

But as with all simple fixes, it often failed to perceive important distinctions between the two punctuation marks. And so, there are an awful lot of single quotation marks out there where apostrophes should be.

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On Capitalizing “Black” and “White” When Talking about Race

The words black and white negatively superimposed over an alternate diagonal background of white and black

Questions of racial justice and equity have occupied—as they should—a large role in our national discourse of late. A long-overdue examination of the embedded biases and structural inequities in our society is taking place. Among the many such examinations is the exploration of how our use of language supports or reinforces racial inequity. In one particular instance, writers have wondered whether it is appropriate to capitalize the terms black and white when they refer to race.

Interestingly, there does not appear to be a consensus on whether to capitalize the terms, so we’ll take a look at the different positions and see if we can come to any conclusions.

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One Weird Trick for Better Writing

A trebuchet before a castle. Illustration of the weird trick for better writing

Okay, I promise it’s not that weird; it’s just fun to appropriate click-bait headlines. And I won’t make you sit through a 25-minute video or scroll through pages of text before I share this trick with you.

As I’ve noted before, writing is easy, but good writing is hard. However, there are a few simple things that you can do to improve your writing, including many of the tips that are on this blog.

One of my favorite tips is something simple but really effective at making your writing clearer and easier to follow. Let’s see if you can figure out what this trick is by seeing it in action.

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On Being Original

dictionary entries for original and originality

For centuries old was better. Old meant tried-and-true, reliable, dependable.

This was especially true in the ancient world. The Romans gave a pass to Jewish religious observances because they were ancient and venerable; the Christians, on the other hand, were some kind of crazy newfangled cult that needed to be suppressed.

But today, no one wants to be a rehash of what has long been; everyone wants to be an original, to say something new and fresh. Now, part of that is because manufacturers and advertisers figured out that they could get more money from you by hyping the “new and improved” version of the thing that worked just fine as it was.

But another part of that is the understandable desire to leave a mark, to make a unique difference—to say I was here. And for that, unoriginality won’t do.

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Acknowledging the Land

Map showing the locations of American Indian tribes in the Upper Hudson River Valley

With this post, I’m taking a break from our regular posts with grammar, writing, and language tips. Today, I’m reflecting on the wonderful locations where Schaefer Wordsmithing has a physical presence—Troy, New York, and Washington, DC—and on the peoples who made this land a home long ago.

Both Troy and Washington are located on historic tidal estuary rivers—the Hudson and Potomac, respectively—and are parts of regions with a long and storied history. There is much to celebrate today in each region, and Schaefer Wordsmithing is lucky to call those regions “home.”

But as November is Native American Heritage Month, I thought it appropriate to take a break from the usual writing tips to reflect on the native peoples who used to call these homes their homes.

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The Hardest Part of Writing: Starting

Man with his head in his hands, looking at a blank notebook

So, it’s National Novel Writing Month, and you’ve decided that you’re going to give it a shot.

There are a lot of difficult things about writing, from character development to story continuity to plot development to research, not to mention making sure that your writing is any good! (Psst, that’s what editors are for.)

But it doesn’t take long to discover the hardest part of writing: starting.

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The Sequence of Tenses in Reported Speech

strips of paper with the names of different English verb tenses written on them

In every language, there is a grammatical rule that is so embedded into the language that its native speakers are barely aware of it, even as non-native students of the language struggle to master it.

When I studied abroad in the Soviet Union,1Younger readers, ask your parents; it was a country more or less where Russia is now. I remember having a conversation with some Russian friends about the challenges of learning each other’s languages. “What’s the hardest thing about Russian grammar?” one of my friends asked me. “Oh, that’s easy,” I answered. “Verbs of motion.” (I even said this in Russian.)

“Verbs of what?” came my friend’s confused reply. He had never even heard of this category of verb—a category that bedevils students of Russian to this day. I explained what I was talking about, but it was clear that he was still mystified.

“Your turn,” I said. “What’s the hardest thing about English?”

“Sequence of tenses,” he said. In English.

“Sequence of what?” I replied.

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Write That Novel! But About What?

person holding white ceramci be happy painted mug

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for short). Every year, aspiring writers commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel in November. As the organizers at nanowrimo.org put it, the project is a “fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.”

So, that novel you’ve always wanted to write—November is your chance. You can make a commitment to trying to get your 50,000 words on the page by the end of the month.

But what should you write about? Ah, there’s the rub.

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