I remember the lesson about passive voice from my first journalism class very clearly, and not just because my professor threw something at me to prove a point. Avoiding passive voice has been firmly cemented in my mind. At the Writing Center I worked at, I often found myself struggling with a future scientist trying to rid their lab reports of passive constructions (one of the biology professors was notorious for taking off points for passive voice). Even Microsoft Word angry underlines my sentences when I occasionally slip.
But here’s the thing, it’s not usually a slip that Microsoft Word catches; it’s a purposeful choice. You see, passive voice has a purpose which is why it exists. Sometimes it just does the trick better than an active sentence. And even better, as this Poynter article by Roy Peter Clark, passive verb constructions can be active too!
This led me to an insight that may be ancient, but that is new to me: verbs are not active or passive at all. The activity or passivity rests in the subject, not the verb. When Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey complained that “I was blindsided” by the bridge scandal, it portrayed him as the passive receiver of the malpractice of others. That is exactly when the passive is most useful.
So, could we just stop hating on passive voice and realize it has a purpose like most other constructions in the English language? Writing with passive voice is about purpose not generalist, absolutist and fear-mongering avoidance.
One thought on “Defending passive voice”
I am so glad you wrote this. In an effort to avoid passive verbs, my writing has suffered. Sometimes things just ARE.