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Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Words & Language Toolbox

Actively demystifying passive voice

By Paula LaRocque

My last column (January/February) discussed the passive voice and misunderstandings regarding its use that are common even among professional writers and editors. For example, some think that any sentence containing a “be” verb is passive. Others think that any weak, static or unassertive expression is passive. Still others, that we should avoid the passive voice whenever possible.

None of that is true. The question that matters in any consideration of the passive voice is this: Is it more effective than the active voice?

But before we consider that question, let’s demystify the passive voice:

Active: John ate a hamburger.

Passive: The hamburger was eaten by John.

Passive: The hamburger was eaten.

The first example shows that the active voice is a straightforward subject-verb-object structure —or, described another way, actor-action-acted upon. The subject is “John.” The verb is “ate.” The object is “hamburger.” This is English at its most dynamic and lucid. Everything necessary to a clear message is here, in its usual and predictable position: S-V-O.

It’s important in this discussion to distinguish between a subject and an agent. The doer or initiator of the action in a sentence is termed the agent. Notice that in the active voice, the subject and agent are one and the same.

Not so with the passive voice. There, the agent is tacked onto the end of the sentence with the preposition “by,” or it disappears altogether. In the first passive example above, the agent (John, the eater) and the object (hamburger, the eaten) have changed places. And in the second, the agent has vanished.

It’s that simple — a structural matter. So why all the blather and bafflegab about the passive voice? Why do so many wrongly identify or fail to recognize it? I believe the confusion derives largely from ill-expressed and misleading definitions and discussions of the passive voice, both in print and on the Internet. Google search “passive voice” and fish around in the results for a few minutes and you’ll read that in the passive voice, “the subject receives the action,” or the action is “performed upon the subject.”

That language is confusing and unhelpful. We’ve all cut our grammatical teeth on the idea that subjects are doers, and objects the done to. So when we read — without further careful explanation — that a subject “receives the action,” we’re bamboozled. We wonder: How is it the subject if it receives the action — isn’t that the function and definition of an object?

Better to say simply that in the passive voice, a sentence’s subject and object change positions — which in our example places hamburger in the usual subject position (before the verb) and John in the usual object position (after the verb). Such visual concepts are more helpful than slippery abstract language.

Back to the question of effective passives: It’s true that the passive voice can be vague, weak, wordy and awkward and can even blur responsibility (“mistakes were made,” instead of “I made a mistake”). But the passive voice is still, as Strunk and White remark in “The Elements of Style,” “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

The passive voice is often the more effective voice when the subject/actor is irrelevant or gets in the way of the main point: “John’s memoir was considered a masterpiece.” Who, exactly, considered the memoir a masterpiece? Who cares? The emphasis is on the artistry of the work, not on those who recognized its artistry. The active voice would distort the statement’s intent by emphasizing the wrong elements: “Some people considered John’s memoir a masterpiece.” That version risks evoking an off-the-point response: “And some people didn’t?”

More examples:

• The company’s mission statement has been completed.

• The suspects were cleared.

• Barack Obama was elected president.

Again, who completed the mission statement, cleared the suspects or elected Barack Obama is less important than the action.

Similarly, the passive voice is often preferred in scientific or technical writing because such writings usually focus on findings, process or method — on action rather than on actor:

Active: The researcher (technician? lab worker? scientist?) then heats the compound and adds the catalyst.

Passive: The compound is then heated and the catalyst added.

Even writers who decry the passive voice often use it, and to good advantage. George Orwell, for example. His “Politics and the English Language” is considered by many (considered by many!) to be a model of fine writing. In that essay, Orwell inveighs against the passive voice. Yet, a large number of Orwell’s own sentences in the essay are passive — 20 percent, according to Wikipedia contributors, and 17 percent, according to my computer’s grammar software.

Oh, dear! We can only surmise that while so eloquently condemning the passive voice, Orwell failed to notice how often he himself used it — probably because he did it so well.

There’s a lesson there.

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words” and “Championship Writing.” E-mail: plarocque@sbcglobal.net

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