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What’s Wrong with the Passive Voice?

Why do people use the passive voice? Engineers, scholars and business people alike use the passive voice on a daily basis – probably without even realizing it. So then, why is passive voice frowned upon and what exactly is it?

Simply put, passive voice is a style of writing that makes the object of the sentence the subject of the sentence. Sentences written in passive voice are structured so that the noun who performs the action is not the subject. Confused? Consider this illustration.

Sentence 1: I made a mistake (Active)
Sentence 2: Mistakes were made. (Passive)

Have you ever been annoyed when politicians or people in positions of authority say “mistakes were made?” Why? Let’s break this down grammatically. In sentence 1 the subject, I, is actively performing the verb, made. However, in sentence 2 the subject is mistakes. What is the subject “mistakes” doing in this sentence? Nothing. Also, more importantly, who was responsible for making these mistakes? No one. Exactly.

Passive Voice is Bad. Here’s why:

It’s confusing
Unlike Latin, in English we typically write sentences where nouns precede verbs. Passive voice is confusing because it reverses the logical progression of ideas. Seen Star Wars? Imagine how Yoda speaks. The first time you hear him speak you probably had to think for a second to understand what he said. For example, “Ready are you? What know you of ready? For eight-hundred years have I trained Jedi.” Wouldn’t it be easier to say, “Are you ready? What do you know about being ready? I have trained Jedi for eight-hundred years.” Using the active voice would make Yoda a lot easier to understand, but, then again, Star Wars is a movie, not real life. You aren’t Yoda. Don’t make it difficult on your audience to understand what you mean.

It lacks accountability
Ultimately, passive voice is self-protective. It defers blame from any one person or group to an ambiguous party. All subjects are passive. For example, the sentence “Amy writes articles.” becomes “Articles are written.” In the first sentence Amy is doing something. She is writing. In the second sentence, the subject, articles, isn’t doing anything. Active voice tells readers you actually understand what you’re writing about. In technical writing, if you aren’t able to say which part of the system is doing what to which piece of data, chances are you really don’t understand how the application works. There’s no “mystery” in technical writing. Either you know what’s happening or you don’t – it’s a 1 or 0. In real life, passive voice skirts accountability as this quote from Roy Williams, the basketball coach at UNC, regarding the eligibility scandal surrounding athletes, amply demonstrates. “Serious mistakes were made at UNC.” By whom? By you? By your peers? We will never know – which is the reason he used the passive voice – because the passive voice hides the culprit. The active voice brings clarity and accountability. Active voice takes responsibility. Readers are not left wondering who did what, or in this case, who is to blame for the “serious mistakes.” 

It’s ambiguous
Ever read a scientific journal? Written a lab report? Although these documents are interesting to some, most of us find them painfully dry. Scholars use the passive voice because they were taught to write this way. Some people (mistakenly) believe that using the passive voice makes them sound more intelligent. This concept has always baffled me. In actuality, passive writing means you do not know who is doing what. This is problematic in any occupation – especially technical writing. Imagine you are giving a client a paper outlining your work on a given project. Which sounds better? “Analyses’ were conducted and revealed…” or “We conducted analyses’ that revealed…?” Most would prefer the second, active, sentence. This tells the reader who exactly was involved in the process. Using the active voice is direct, to the point and conveys you know what you are talking about. Using the passive voice lacks precision. It conveys uncertainty and hesitation. Readers are left to guess what you mean because passive voice never specifies who is acting. So, if by “intelligent” you really mean wordy and ambiguous you’d be correct. This idea  is summed up nicely in a quote from Randy Moore, “Passive voice is unusually inconvenient because it suggests scientists were acted upon rather than scientists acted.” 

Passive voice isn’t grammatically “wrong” by any means, but it is a poor way to structure your writing. The active voice saves your readers from making assumptions, and also cuts down on unnecessary wording. Effective communicators are aware of what “voice” they use. Improve your own writing by avoiding the use of passive voice when active voice is more suitable.

3 replies on “What’s Wrong with the Passive Voice?”

Regarding accountability:
> It defers blame from any one person or group to an ambiguous party.
My hunch is that passive voice is used 😉 for this very reason, whether writers are aware of what they’re doing or not. Business culture often supports an attitude of “mistakes were made.” How refreshing it is when a person actively states, “I made a mistake”!

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