September 12, 2011 by bradcharlesbeals
A few weeks ago, I stumped hard for the active voice. And for good reason: it’s the better choice, the safer choice for responsible writers. However, the passive voice, in moderation and in the right hands, can be useful for getting you out of some awkward spots.
The weakness of the passive voice—that the actor is stated indirectly, or not at all—occasionally turns out to be a strength. Let’s say, for example, that you don’t know (or want to hide) who the actor in the sentence is. Just call in the passive voice:
Sexual harassment charges against Mr. Jones were filed yesterday. (We’re protecting the person who filed them.)
Forty acres of orange trees have been planted. (We don’t know—and no one would care—who planted them.)
Our house was vandalized. (We’d love to know who did it, but the police have no promising leads.)
To force an active-voice construction would make matters worse:
Someone—we’re not at liberty to say who—filed sexual harassment charges against Mr. Jones yesterday.
Migrant workers, presumably, planted forty acres of orange trees.
Representatives of the local criminal element vandalized our house.
Notice that in these examples the active voice shifts emphasis to the actor. Not only does this make for awkward reading, it also changes the intent of the sentences. The original sentences are about the charges against Mr. Jones, the forty acres of orange trees, and our house, not about an unknown plaintiff, migrant workers, or criminals. Now it may be that if we had the information about the actor or the desire to divulge it, our emphasis and intent would be different.But we have neither.
There are also times when we want to emphasize the receiver not because we’re hiding or we’re ignorant of the actor, but because it’s our purpose, and because some things don’t fit neatly into active voice. This is the second use of the passive: intentionally emphasizing the receiver.
In a piece about the Academy Awards, it would be right and good and proper to write a passive-voice sentence like this: This year’s Oscar for best supporting actor was awarded to George Clooney. But in a bio on George Clooney, he should have the rightful place at the front of an active sentence. George Clooney won the Oscar.
And if you think about it, Oscar, as the subject of a sentence, will almost always be in passive voice. Besides sitting on a shelf, there’s little else for an Oscar to do but be given, be awarded, be handed out, be toted, be brandished, be coveted, be sold on ebay. A statue, by its nature, is passive. It will never make a good actor, even if it is an Oscar.
Finally, you might employ the passive voice when your text calls for sentence variety. I say might, because there are many ways to vary sentences without resorting to the passive. However, the rare, adeptly spun passive to break up a long, wooden passage, one that casts no shadow on your subject would be acceptable. But use in moderation.
So while active voice is clearer, stronger, and more concise, it can’t do everything. If the actor is unknown or needs to be hidden, or if the receiver of the action is your focus, cast it in the passive voice. And for the sake of variety, advanced users may employ the passive—but please…write responsibly. Don’t put interested readers at risk.