Ah, the age-old dilemma – to passive voice, or not to passive voice?
For seasoned writers and grammar aficionados, this is a topic of invigorating debate, and at times, an occasion for light-hearted, nerdy sparring.
But for others (normal people who just need to write for school or work), this is something that you’re either unaware of as an issue, or you’ve long recognised as a point of agony in your pursuit of stylistic clarity.
In the English Language, the basic sentence order is composed of a Subject, Verb and Object (aka the ‘SVO’ structure), which means that it’s always most natural if we formulate our sentences this way. And if you write an ‘SVO’ sentence, you’ve used active voice.
Granted, this isn’t to say that every sentence we write must rigidly abide by the SVO structure, for reasons which we shall get to later on in this post.
That said, and if you stop reading after you finish this sentence because grammar bores you to death, remember this –
This is not a Benthamite prescription; active voice is the foundation of clarity, just ask Steinbeck or Hemingway. It makes your writing easy to follow.
When used appropriately, however, passive voice has its merits, and should not be avoided wholesale.
To better understand the ‘more active voice, less passive voice’ axiom, let’s break our discussion down into four layers – grammar, syntax, style and context.
According to Grammerly, “active voice means that a sentence has a subject that acts upon its verb. Passive voice means that a subject is a recipient of a verb’s action.”
To me, this definition circles back on itself and is not very helpful. After all, you can’t really define a technical term by using, well, technical terms. So let’s try this instead:
|Definition||How to identify?||Example|
|Active voice||Any sentence that begins with a person, a thing or an agent, followed by an action (or a state of being).||The sentence follows the construction ‘Subject – Verb – Object’ (where Object could mean ‘conveying a complete idea’, and does not necessarily have to take the form of another noun)||“I love you.”|
(“I” is the Subject, “love” is the Verb, and “you” is the Object)
|Passive voice||Any sentence which conveys the idea that someone/something is being acted upon.||Sentence 1) contains ‘To be’ + past particle (“has been”, “is done”, “was accomplished”), and 2) often (but not always) contains the “by” preposition||“You are loved by me.”|
Let’s now think about the difference between the active voice example and its passive voice counterpart – “I love you” vs “You are loved by me”
Interestingly, the passive voice sentence could work even without the possessive phrase “by me”; “You are loved” is perfectly grammatical (if not slightly evasive in meaning, but that’s beside the point here).
However, the active voice sentence cannot work without the Object – “I love” – I love what?
Note that some sentences which only contain a subject and a verb can be grammatically valid, such as “I breathe” or “I run”, because they convey a complete idea (I breathe because I’m a human being and it’s just what I can do; or I run as in I’m a runner and this is an exercise I generally like doing).
In our Curious Case of the Evasive Lover, though, simply saying “I love” does not suffice, because when one loves, one must love someone or something.
Now, let’s consider the implications of these two sentence constructions from a syntactic angle.
Syntax refers to sentence word order. Syntactically, there are stark distinctions between saying “I love you” versus “You are loved by me” or “You are loved” to your lover (or vice versa!)
The active voice version is considerably more direct and forthcoming. When someone says “I love you”, s/he is willing to both own the emotion – “I love” – and show a degree of open vulnerability.
On the other hand, by flipping the order of the first- and second-person pronouns, the passive voice expression leads with “You” as the recipient of ‘my’ love, which creates a sense of evasiveness on the part of the speaker. The ‘by’ preposition also signals the use of the possessive case, which creates a strange hierarchy in which ‘you’ are at the behest of ‘my’ affection.
And God forbid that someone you love should respond with “You are loved” when you ask them if they love you; it’s most likely their subtle-not-so-subtle way of saying that they don’t really love you, but hey, someone else probably does!
You see, then, how the decision to opt for active voice or passive voice isn’t just a matter of grammatical accuracy, but of syntactic implication (and in our case, romantic honesty). Choosing to lead with the Subject or the Object in a sentence could result in radically different messages, and of course, invite radically different responses, too.
The third aspect of our discussion concerns style, and any discussion of style naturally pertains to concision. To write well is to write clearly, which means saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
I’ve learnt over the years that this is easier said than done, but one way of achieving concision is, indeed, to reduce the use of passive voice.
As I mentioned earlier, the ‘Golden Mean’ is to limit the portion of passive voice sentences in any given piece of writing to 10% of your total sentences.
How do you ‘calculate’ this? For anyone not writing in timed conditions (i.e. tests or exams) and typing on a computer, I’d recommend this Real-time Content Analysis tool. Once you copy and paste your work into the blank field, the system will tally up the percentage of passive voice sentences and highlight them for your reference.
If, however, you’re a student who’s subject to the more traditional accoutrements of pen and paper, fear not – some basic mental arithmetic will do the trick.
Say you’re writing a 500-word essay, so 10% would mean 50 words, which should roughly add up to 2 sentences. Likewise, a 1000-word essay gives you a ‘passive voice quota’ of about 4 sentences (unless your sentences are Proustian* specimens, in which case you should consider shortening them!)
But why does using passive voice too much make your writing unclear?
This relates to my previous point on evasiveness. Most of the time, using passive voice means either postponing or omitting the Subject (i.e. the key focus of a sentence). This is likely to leave readers with follow-up questions, such as “who carried out the action?”, “what is reason for the action?” etc.
So if your partner were to say, “You are loved by me”, your immediate reaction would perhaps be – why past tense? Does “loved” mean no longer “love”? That you once loved me, but not anymore? Or do you mean to say you have always loved me and continue to love me? This is all rather unclear, and to some, perhaps excruciating so.
And if your partner were to tell you, “You are loved”, then that may imply an altogether different, and possibly unromantic, message: either, s/he means you are generally loved by many, or you are loved by a select few, possibly including your partner (but again, such ambiguity raises suspicions…)
In any case, the point is none of these passive voice constructions convey a message as clear and strong as the active voice of “I love you”, which I’m sure most would agree, is the most satisfying version of the three expressions.
*Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was a French novelist who famously wrote a sentence so long that, according to the modern philosopher Alain de Botton, could “stretch around the base of a wine bottle 17 times”.
Finally, we come to the part where passive voice gets vindicated (even in this sentence!). At the start of this post, I caveated that not all passive voice is bad, and there are times when using passive voice is preferable, even necessary.
What are they?
1) When you want to highlight the fact that someone or something has been acted upon / is on the receiving end of an action
- Passive voice: “The student was beaten up by his teacher.”
- Active voice: “The teacher had beaten up his student.”
The passive voice version zooms in on the student as the victim of pedagogical violence, which is more likely to evoke sympathy on the reader’s part.
The active voice sentence, on the other hand, doesn’t convey the victim message as strongly, and instead leads us to consider the teacher’s point of view.
Did the teacher beat his student up because he was being inappropriately cruel, or was he simply demonstrating a ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ teaching philosophy?
2) When you don’t actually know who carried out the action or what caused the action
- “My chocolates have gone missing from the office pantry.”
In this vexing situation, all I know is that my chocolates have disappeared, but I don’t know why or who had taken them.
I can’t exactly say “Someone took my chocolates from the office pantry”, because hey, it might so end up that I was the one who had misplaced them in the first place, in which case saying “someone took” would come across presumptuous and accusatory. The ‘alternative’ “Something made my chocolates go missing from the office pantry” sounds clumsy, so is really not much of an alternative.
In this sort of scenario, then, passive voice is your best option.
3) When you want to shift the focus away from the person who carried out the action or from the cause of the action
- Passive voice: “The email was sent at noon.”
- Active voice: “I sent the email at noon.”
This is a classic one, and an example which shows why many people in the corporate world have an affinity for the passive voice. It’s a linguistic trick that you can leverage to ‘get off the hook’, so to speak.
Imagine this scenario: you had mistakenly sent an embarrassing email to clients at noon, and it can’t be recalled. Crap. The only way to remedy this is to pre-empt your boss’ discovery and confess to him about what’s happened.
In your email, which of the sentences above would you choose?
From personal experience, I notice that most people are inclined to go with the passive voice option and write “The email was sent at noon.” That’s because this construction ‘eliminates’ the subject and as such, removes the emphasis on the cause (or ‘culprit’) of their faux pas. And honestly, this does work sometimes.
But for managers who appreciate frankness from their staff, they may well prefer the active voice expression – “I sent the email at noon.”, because it at least reflects someone’s willingness to own up and take responsibility for their actions.
The verdict, then, is clear. The decision to use active voice or passive voice depends on the focus that you wish to highlight, and the messaging that you wish to get across.
In general, go with active voice and write SVO sentences, but where the occasion calls for some passive voice manoeuvring, use it – but use it sparingly.
Do you struggle with using too much passive voice in your own writing? What are your thoughts on how much one should use passive voice?
Comment below – I’d love to hear what you think!