1 post tagged

passive voice

What's wrong with passive voice

Open a book on writing in English. Literally, do it. Page one will say: 'Avoid passive voice'. If it's not on page one, keep flipping the pages until you find it. It's there. It's always there.

Everyone will tell you passive voice makes your writing weak. Passive voice drains the energy from your writing and makes it less readable. Avoiding passive voice is good advice. But let's look deeper.

What is passive voice

Active voice is when someone does something upon something else. I wrote a book. Natasha brought beer. Frank met a journalist.

Passive is the same in reverse: something is done upon something else. The book was written. Beer was brought. A journalist was murdered.

Usually passive voice avoids the subject—the one that performs the action. Subject can still come visit, although it feels awkward:

Active voicePassive, no subjectPassive, with subject
We build websites in three weeks.Our websites are built in three weeks.Our websites are built in three weeks by us.
The nurse prepped him for surgery.He was prepped for surgery.He was prepped for surgery by the nurse.
My friend from Ukraine designed this for 300$.This was designed for 300$.This was designed for 300$ by my friend from Ukraine.

Why passive voice is bad for your text

Everyone says passive voice makes your sentences less energetic and clear, adds clutter, makes the text less readable. And that's all true, just look at these examples:

Passive voice Active
The product was shipped on time and on budget. We shipped the app on time and on budget.
It is required by the state to apply for a work permit before being able to be hired. The state requires you to apply for a work permit before you can get a job.
This editing technique was first developed for the Russian language and was later rebuilt for English. I developed this editing technique for Russian and then rebuilt it for English.

In most cases, avoiding passive voice is good. Except when it's not.

Sometimes you need passive voice

Passive voice is not all evil. You will need it at least in two cases: when you don't know who the subject is, or that subject is not important.

Let's say, something bad happened in Washington:

A journalist was pushed under a moving train.

That's passive voice. We have to use it when we don't know who pushed the poor girl. When there is no subject, passive voice is fine.

Let's say this in active voice:

Someone pushed a journalist under a moving train.

Active voice was supposed to add energy, but it didn't. Instead, in shifted focus.

This 'Someone' subject adds one extra idea to the sentence. What used to be a sentence about a journalist is now a sentence about two people: a 'Someone' and a journalist. Extra ideas make the sentence less focused. Extra idea adds clutter. And we want to avoid clutter.

So we turned passive voice into active and the sentence got cluttered. Means we were wrong. We needed passive voice here.

When you transform passive into active voice, you will have to add a subject — someone who performs the action. This new subject will always shift focus. Because it's the subject, it's a big deal. If you need that subject in your sentence—fine, use it. But if it's there because Strunk & White told you to avoid passive voice—think twice. Your active voice may be killing clarity.

Active voice, unclear Passive voice, clear
George d'Anthès shot Russia's prodigy poet Alexander Pushkin in a duel Russia's prodigy poet Alexander Pushkin was shot in a duel
Our contractors completed the construction of a 22-storey apartment block in September. The 22-storey apartment block was completed in September.
The electrons from the outlet have charged this battery. The battery has been charged.

When subject is irrelevant, passive voice may work just fine

Sometimes you can simply use a different verb and avoid the active—passive problem altogether:

Active Passive Different verb
The President has signed the bill banning passive voice The bill banning passive voice has been signed. Passive voice is now illegal.
Employees and clients filed at least thirty complaints about your using passive voice in the office. At least thirty complaints were filed about your passive voice in the office. We have here at least thirty complaints about your passive voice in the office.
The CEO issued a memo requesting to stop passive voice in the workplace. A memo was issued requesting to stop passive voice in the workplace. We can no longer use passive voice at work.
2016   clarity   passive voice   syntax