Many writers overuse the passive voice. It gets used — and overused — in academic writing, so students often overuse it to try to sound “academic.” I hear from professionals in other fields that grown-ass adults overuse because they just don’t seem to know any better. I’ve been on the internet, and I’ve seen people from all walks of life overuse it. Someone could be using the passive voice inappropriately in your own home, right now.
If you are wondering why this matters, you might just be that person! Stick around. Learn something.
In a nutshell, the active vs. passive choice matters because you’re shaping the focus of your sentence. Wherever you put the focus, that’s where you are drawing your reader’s attention. You’re like Dick and Jane, saying LOOK.
In a sentence (or clause) written in the active voice, the “doer” of the verb goes in the subject position, and constructing sentences this way is usually the best choice. Can we agree that the sentence “Dick found the ball” is more sensibly constructed than “The ball was found by Dick”? I think we can. (I think we can all also agree that Jane sounds like she’s getting a little irritated with her brother, and who can blame her? The ball is literally RIGHT THERE.)
Not all sentences have such a clear “doer” of the verb, though, and in some cases, writing a sentence in the passive voice makes a lot of sense.
All sentences (or clauses) in the passive voice follow this pattern:
subject + “to be” verb + past participle + (by + agent)
The ball + was + found + (by + Dick).
The “by + agent” is in parentheses because not all sentences written in the passive voice identify an agent or “doer” of the verb. For example, in the sentence “Mistakes were made,” no maker of mistakes is identified. That’s why when you hear someone say “mistakes were made,” you can safely assume he or she is a total jerkface, trying to avoid taking responsibility for the problem — the sentence conveniently fails to identify who made the “mistakes” and thus evades assigning or taking any responsibility. It’s the Sterling Archer of “apologies.”
There are three situations in which it’s appropriate to use the passive voice.
- The writer needs to put the focus on what would normally be the direct object, instead of the “doer” of the verb
- The “doer” of the verb is universal
- Identifying the “doer” of the verb is impossible, unimportant, or needlessly complicated
Direct Object instead of “Doer”
Sometimes a writer wants the reader to focus on the word that would normally be the direct object in a sentence if we were going by the “active voice” rules of engagement. In these cases, it makes perfect sense to write the sentence in the passive voice. For example:
The Great Gatsby was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
For a student writing about the work, and not the author, it makes sense to use the passive voice in order to put the novel — which would normally be the direct object — into the subject position.
“Doer” is Universal
Sometimes the “doer” of the verb is, in the context, universal. I might write, for example:
The passive voice may be used in three types of situations.
That would be an example of a sentence written in the passive voice because the “doer” of the verb is, in the context, universal. Anyone writing sentences can use the passive voice in these three types of situations. I could write, “Writers may use the passive voice in three types of situations,” but most students don’t think of themselves as “writers,” so I’d worry that they’d continue thinking that this was advice that applied to people other than themselves. The passive voice is, in cases like this, usefully inclusive.
Situations in which the “doer” of a verb is unknown are not uncommon. Imagine that one of your social media accounts starts publishing things you didn’t post. Saying “My Facebook account was hacked!” allows you to avoid the problem of putting a “doer” in the subject position when you don’t know who the doer might be.
Likewise, there are many situations in which the “doer” of the verb is unimportant, at least in the sense that it’s unimportant to identify the specific doer. For example, in the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” in the line “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.” The stockings were, presumably, hung by the family — perhaps by the children, with some adult supervision to prevent the kids from “accidentally” nailing their sibling’s hands to the mantel. Or maybe mom just did it herself, because everyone else was too lazy. Or maybe dad did it, because he’s anal-retentive about how the stockings are spaced. It’s not really important, unless you’re the one getting into yet another holiday-themed family argument; the writer just wants you to have the mental image of the stockings, hanging on the mantel, without any people around (they’re all upstairs sleeping), and the passive voice lets him do that, as well as helping him drop those sick sick “Night Before Christmas” rhymes.
One more example: imagine you’re a reporter covering a high-profile trial. The jury has deliberated and returned a guilty verdict, and the judge has handed down what she feels is a reasonable sentence for the offender. You know your readers, and for them, the important thing is the outcome of the trial. In that case (pun intended), you might write a sentence like, “Notorious cow-licker Sam Neep was declared guilty and sentenced to six months public service on Thursday.” (In this hypothetical scenario licking cows is a crime. I’m not sure whether cow-licking is a crime in real life, but it’s safe to say it’s not a great idea.) Your sentence is in the passive voice, and for good reason — you’ve avoided needless complications by removing the jury and judge from the subject position, and you’ve put the focus where your readers need it to be.
The active and passive voice are not opposing forces, like Batman and Superman in Dawn of Justice. They can work together, like Batman and Superman in Dawn of Justice.
It’s up to you as the writer to make the right choice. With great power comes great responsibility. It’s our choices that show what we truly are. One does not simply walk into Mord — oh, sorry, went on a bit of a tangent there. But you get the idea: as a writer, you’ll be crafting stronger, clearer sentences if you attend to who is doing what, and put the focus where it needs to be.
One quick aside: I have a soft spot for Struck and White’s enduring classic The Elements of Style even though, like a lot of writing teachers, I think it’s overly prescriptive and doesn’t work well as a text for beginning writers. S&W are big cheerleaders for the active voice, which is fine, but I think they leave a lot of writers with the impression that the passive voice is to be avoided like a suburban subdivision built on an ancient Native American burial ground. And as you’ve seen, it’s a little more complicated than that. But not much!