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“Avoid The Passive Voice” Is Cheap Writing Advice That Helps No One

In defence of the English passive voice

3 min read

Photo by Roberto Catarinicchia on Unsplash

“Avoid the passive voice,” they say.

That’s nonsense.

The Passive Voice Exists for a Reason

And the reason is simple: there are times when the writer wants to focus on the object of the action, not the doer.

Here’s a short text from the BBC.

Mount Etna spits lava into the night sky. Europe’s tallest active volcano roared as it spewed lava from one of its largest craters. Lava fountains and flows were captured on video of the intensifying volcanic activity. — BBC News, 04.07.2024

In the last sentence, the writer chose to focus on lava fountains and flows, not people with cameras.

Look how unnatural the sentence would be in the active voice.

Europe’s tallest active volcano roared as it spewed lava from one of its largest craters. Some people captured lava fountains and flows on video of the intensifying volcanic activity.

***

Sometimes the doer is obvious, unknown, or we simply don’t want to reveal it.

Here’s a sentence from National Geographic article about leopards.

They are heavily poached, their habitat largely destroyed, and they hang on in empty scraps of forest devoid of prey in four Southeast Asian nations.

The writer chose to focus on leopards and their habitat, not on idiots.

***

Sometimes using the passive voice is the only option available. I challenge you to find a natural, secular, “active” alternative to the following sentence.

The Earth was formed billions of years ago.

Or to this one from an article published in Nature.

Many of the cave remains could be identified only by their protein signatures.

You may say, “These examples come from academic and journalistic texts. The passive voice is more common in those genres. In informal writing, it’s better to use the active voice.”

Yes and no.

Read this stupid fictional story I wrote.

Terrible day yesterday. I waited for two hours at the clinic. I was seen by a doctor who smelled of rotten potatoes. I was prescribed some disgusting expensive pills and told to quit mozzarella. When I got home, I was welcomed by my landlord, who told me to vacate the house in 24 hours. Not the kind of day I’d want to relive.

Here the passive voice has a clear function: it allows me to keep the focus on the same subject (I).

So it doesn’t matter if the style is informal. What matters is who you want under the spotlight.

The assumption is that the active is “ordinary”, and the passive is in some way derived from it for special purposes. While it is true that the passive is sometimes used for stylistic reasons, in scientific writing for example, […] the passive is not a strange alternative for the active; it fulfils an essential role in the language and exists independently of the active. — Michael Lewis, The English Verb, P.132

When to Avoid the Passive Voice

When it creates confusion.

My friend, Mark, and I went to the post office to collect a box of glasses I had bought online. After the man at the desk handed it to me, the package was dropped. Of all the ten glasses, only one remained intact. I want him to pay for the damage!

Who dropped the box? Readers will keep wondering about it for the rest of their lives.

***

Avoid it when using the active voice is the natural option (which is most of the time).

We went to a Thai restaurant. Rice with vegetables was had by us along with rice paper rolls. A glass of Thai beer was enjoyed by my friend and…

Who writes like this anyway?

Such an Incomplete Piece of Advice

“Avoid drinking coffee!”

Why? When? Before going to sleep? In the morning? When I’m nervous? After dental surgery?

“Avoid using your smartphone!”

Where? At work? While driving? In bed? When my car breaks down in the middle of nowhere?

“Avoid the passive voice!”

Sorry for the rant. I hope this helps!

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