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:
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.
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.