Passive voice and I got well acquainted while I was in grad school. It’s not just that it was often used in textbooks and the articles we read, though that is certainly where I saw the most passive constructions. During a semester of teaching advanced grammar, I actually taught it.
And that’s why I’m baffled by the following myth.
Myth: passive voice is bad and you shouldn’t use it
Comments like that seem to be popping up recently. I do know that many people incorrectly use the passive voice, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s bad. (Perhaps it simply means that we need more education on what the passive voice is.) When I taught passive voice, we learned why people use it.
Truth: it serves an important linguistic purpose
What is this purpose? Passive voice allows us to change where the emphasis in the sentence lies. In active sentences, the emphasis is on the subject.
Here are a few reasons why we’d want to change the emphasis away from the subject:
The actor (subject) is unknown
- “She was murdered.” No one knows who murdered her.
- Compare the above sentence with “Someone murdered her.”
The focus of the sentence is on the action, situation, or object
- “She was found murdered in her home.” Who found her is irrelevant.
- Listen to the news. You should find passive sentences like this example.
The actor wishes to diminish his or her role
- “The data were analyzed.” To make research seem more unbiased, the researcher often removes him or herself from the sentence.
- Compare the above sentence with “The researcher analyzed the data,” or even “I analyzed the data.”
Passive voice—when used properly and with intent—serves a purpose
If you’re not really sure what the passive voice is and how to make it, check out this infographic.
*If you caught that the title of this post is actually passive, you get 10 million superstar grammarian points.