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.

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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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 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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On the Use of Euphemisms

Letter blocks arranged to spell the word Euphemism

There are plenty of topics that make people uncomfortable. To get around this discomfort, speakers and writers have been employing euphemisms for centuries.

A euphemism is “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”1“euphemism,” Dictionary, Accessed 10/10/2022.. The word itself comes from the Greek εὐφημισμος euphēmismós, from the noun εὐφημια euphēmía meaning “good speech” (an antonym of βλᾰσφημιᾱ blasphēmia “deceitful speech”).

Euphemisms are often used to avoid subjects that are usually considered impolite or taboo:

Deathdemisedpassed onis no moreceased to beexpiredgone to meet one’s makerlatebereft of liferests in peacepushing up the daisiesshuffled off this mortal coilrun down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible2From Monty Python’s famous Dead Parrot Sketchkicked the bucket, gone to one’s great reward, crossed over, bought the farm, departed, deceased, lost, no longer with us, gave up the ghost, in a better place, gone home, transitioned, and of course the most common of all: passed away

Losing a Job: let go, between jobs, downsized, taking early retirement, pursuing other opportunities, considering options

Sex: making love, doing it, sleeping with, fooling around, going all the way, hooking up

Bodily functions: powder your nose, break wind, visit the ladies’ room, indisposed, number one, number two, time of the month

It’s easy to see why people use euphemisms; who wants to discuss unpleasant or offensive matters directly? But should a writer employ them in their writing?

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The Importance of Good Writing

One of the great benefits of the internet age is that it is text-driven: emails, text messages, social media, and on and on. People are reading and writing more than ever.

Written text in need of editing to become good writing

But the quality of the writing hasn’t necessarily increased with the quantity. When everyone can publish without restriction, there will be a lot of poorly written content available. Otherwise good ideas can get lost in a sea of jumbled words and phrases.

Good writing and clear communication are essential if you want to stand out and be recognized. Your ideas will draw more attention and earn more respect when they are presented in ways that are easy to understand and remember.

An editor can help you with your writing not only by spotting the obvious grammatical and typographical errors but by helping to improve the flow and the clarity of your writing. An editor can help a writer avoid common writing pitfalls and enable the text to shine.

If you would like to improve your writing, Schaefer Wordsmithing can help you.