Recognizing, Avoiding, and Using PASSIVE VOICE
“ACTION IS ELOQUENCE.”
“ONE OF THE GREATEST CURSES OF RUN-OF-THE-MILL AMERICAN WRITING . . . IS ITS CRIPPLING DEPENDENCE ON PASSIVE VOICE.”
(Thomas H. Cain, Common Sense about Writing)
“ENGLAND, ‘THE NATURAL PROTECTOR OF THE WEAKER COMMUNITIES.’ ENGLAND, THE CHOSEN MASTER OF THE SEAS. AND WHY? BECAUSE ‘IT HAS BEEN WELL SAID’ THAT THIS SHOULD BE SO. BECAUSE THE POSSIBILITY OF ANY OTHER NATION’S BEING SUPREME AT SEA WAS ‘BEING EXCLUDED.’ BUT BY WHOM HAS IT ‘BEEN SAID’? BY WHOM WAS IT ‘BEING EXCLUDED’? HOW SIMPLE THE PROBLEMS OF THE WORLD BECOME IN THE PASSIVE VOICE. IT [IS] THE VOICE OF NEITHER PRECISION NOR REASON.”
(Joachim Remak, The Origins of World War I, 1871-1914)
Sentences in active voice
Sentences in passive voice
|have a subject, verb, and object||have a verb and object|
|are more informative||are undramatic and unexciting|
|are more direct and specific||often are clumsy|
|are more exciting, forceful & emphatic||are weak, wordy, roundabout|
|(often) are missing the actor (which is a particular problem for historians who need to know who did what and why)|
PASSIVE VOICE IS COMPOSED OF
1) A FORM OF THE “TO BE” VERB
2) THE PAST PARTICIPLE OF ANOTHER VERB
|SUBJECT (WHO)||VERB (DID)||OBJECT (WHAT)|
|JACK KEROUAC||WROTE||ON THE ROAD.|
|THE BOLSHEVIKS||KILLED||THE CZAR.|
|ACTIVE: President Truman||seized||the steel mills.|
|PASSIVE: The steel mills||were seized||by President Truman.|
|PASSIVE: The steel mills||were seized.|
PASSIVE: The whistle WAS BLOWN. (By whom?)
ACTIVE: The crook BLEW the whistle.
PASSIVE: The law WAS PASSED. (By whom?)
ACTIVE: Congress PASSED the law.
PASSIVE: Resolutions ARE MADE. (By whom?)
ACTIVE: Optimistic people MAKE resolutions.
PASSIVE: It HAS LONG BEEN THOUGHT that he was innocent. (By whom?)
PASSIVE: It HAS LONG BEEN THOUGHT by historians that he was innocent.
ACTIVE: Historians HAVE LONG THOUGHT that he was innocent.
PASSIVE: Active voice IS EMPHASIZED. (By whom?)
PASSIVE: Active voice IS EMPHASIZED by experts.
ACTIVE: Experts EMPHASIZE active voice.
PASSIVE: The book WAS PUBLISHED in 1976. (By whom?)
PASSIVE: The book WAS PUBLISHED in 1976 by Margaret Truman.
ACTIVE: Margaret Truman published the book in 1976.
PASSIVE: The final step to war HAD BEEN TAKEN. (By whom?)
PASSIVE: The final step to war HAD BEEN TAKEN by the president.
ACTIVE: The president had taken (or took) the final step to war.
DO NOT CONFUSE PASSIVE VOICE WITH PAST TENSE:
The book WAS a best seller = past tense, active voice
The book WAS PUBLISHED (by whom?) = past tense, passive voice
THE PASSIVE VOICE CAN BE EXPRESSED IN ALL TENSES AND FORMS:
– The enemy IS DEFEATED. (present)
– The enemy WAS DEFEATED. (past)
– The enemy WILL BE DEFEATED. (future)
– The enemy IS BEING DEFEATED. (present progressive)
– The enemy HAS BEEN DEFEATED. (past perfect)
– The enemy expects TO BE DEFEATED. (infinitive)
– The enemy hates BEING DEFEATED. (gerund)
. . . AND SOME DISCIPLINES (E.G., PSYCHOLOGY AND BIOLOGY) RELY HEAVILY ON IT.
Consider using passive voice if:
– the receiver of the action–or the action itself–is more important than the actor.
– the doer of the action is unknown or unimportant.
– preceding sentences have made the doer absolutely clear to the reader.
– passive voice provides needed emphasis.
– In 1936 Franklin Roosevelt WAS REELECTED.
– Tax returns MUST BE RETURNED by midnight on April 15.
– Taking pictures IS NOT PERMITTED during performances.
– Since the treasure WAS UNEARTHED five hundred years ago, it has been a major source of national pride. (For a paper on the treasure in recent years.)