Editing Myth #4: Passive Voice Should Be Eradicated

Posted March 19, 2013 by Amanda Shofner in Editing / 4 Comments

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.

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4 responses to “Editing Myth #4: Passive Voice Should Be Eradicated

  1. Interesting! I’ve heard so many times that you shouldn’t write in passive voice. I try to streamline it out of my writing, but as you say here, there are times when it’s appropriate and works better than the active voice. Thanks for the knowledge nugget!

    • Avoiding passive voice is still good writing advice, I think. For the most part, it distances the writing, making it more complex and denser. (It’s part of the reason why academic writing is a pain to read.) Passive voice probably gets its bad reputation because so many people use it incorrectly, but I don’t know that it’s ever followed by an explanation of why it’s wrong. It’s hard to learn without understanding why you should–or shouldn’t–use something.

      I also have a feeling that people use passive voice more than they realize. I use it at least once in this post outside of my examples and title.

  2. Dex Jerkon

    Thank you for pointing it out. I’m enraged by the fact that Grammarly points out every single passive voice I use as problems. At least it allows me to be enraged.

    • It’s definitely good to be aware of passive use, but not every use is bad. I wouldn’t trust a computer program to check grammar–there are too many variables in grammar for it be accurate.

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