Passive Defensive – sticking up for the passive voice

At a meeting a few weeks ago a colleague and I were talking about active and passive voice in grammar. When I’ve done training on web writing in the past I’ve always encouraged people to use the active voice where possible as it’s more direct, the meaning requires less “decoding” with it’s “x did y to z” punchiness.

The passive voice, “z had y done to it by x”, sounds more complex and is tainted by weasly political evasiveness of the “mistakes were made” variety.

But increasingly, I feel the need to stick up for the passive voice. I’ve heard blunt advice from some quarters (not my colleague, I should add) that active is a sign of good writing where passive is not. I really don’t think that is the case.

The problem is not the passive voice. The problem is when we use it unthinkingly. Some people use it because they think it sounds more professional. That’s not what it’s for!

The key is to use the passive voice intentionally. I usually default to the active voice if I can but sometimes, only the passive will do.

Where would we be without the passive voice? Try turning these sentences into the active voice to see what I mean:

Rome was not built in a day.

Wisdom is only found in truth.

Libraries are not made, they grow.

See this site for more examples.

The point of voice within a sentence is to draw the attention of the reader to certain things, rather like a photographer frames a shot around a focal point. The passive voice directs attention away from the subject so we focus on the the thing that is being affected or maybe the action itself. You can have ethical reasons for not wanting to identify a subject, it might be more diplomatic, you may not know who or what the subject is or it may just not be important.

And it may just suit the rhythm and flow of the sentence better. That’s a pretty good reason, too.

For more of an explanation, try this post from Grammarly.