Despite what the many critics say, the passive voice can be punchy, compact, and thought-provoking.
For almost a century, the passive voice has been under attack. From Strunk and White’s iconic writing guide The Elements of Style (first published in 1919) to webinars and new guides on plain language, critics demonize the passive voice as lifeless, weak, evasive, and limp. They advocate for the active voice as more concise, direct, and vigorous than the passive. And in their belligerent criticism, they fail to see the weaknesses in their own arguments.
In his essay, “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive,” linguist Geoffrey Pullum provides many examples to demonstrate what he calls “an extraordinary level of grammatical ignorance” among educated critics of the passive voice. Pullman explains that there are many who cannot distinguish between the active and passive voice. His list of constructions incorrectly labeled as passive include “five girls have died” (although dying may require no agency, this is an active clause), “a struggle ensued” (clauses with verbs of event occurrence are active clauses), and “there was a ceasefire agreement” (an existential clause is not a passive clause).1 Perhaps the passive voice has become a trope for indifferent language and lazy writing, but the passive voice has much to say about that.
Note that all examples included in this article come from actual texts. References have been omitted due to space constraints.
What’s in a Name?
The active voice has a name more adept to a culture obsessed with agency, ownership, and competition. But you would think linguists, grammarians, and writers on writing are aware of the difference between a name and a function.
To show you the abilities of the passive, let’s consider what writing is all about. When you write, you are pouring on the page your cast of characters and events and your contributions to your readers’ knowledge. And all this, you do within the word order constraints of your syntax and within the limitations of human memory.
English syntax dictates the word order to be Subject Verb Object (SVO.) There is little wiggle room, lest like Yoda of Star Wars you become.2 This SVO order means that the subject comes first, expressing what the sentence is about. You are reading this right—the subject is the default topic of your sentence, it has nothing to do with the agent of the action. Think of “my friend died” or “the rumor spread”—there is no agency on the part of the subject.
Roles such as agent, patient, recipient, experiencer, and others in your who-did-what-to-whom schema are semantic concepts, called semantic roles. They indicate how the various participants are involved in an event and relate to each other, independent of their syntactic position in the sentence.
Voice is one of the grammatical strategies to express perspective3 and change the syntactic position without changing the semantic role of a participant. It allows you to zoom in on a participant without losing track of who is doing what to whom. Voice becomes relevant when you use a transitive verb. (Technically, verbs are not inherently transitive or intransitive, but are used in transitive, ditransitive, or intransitive ways, as in “cook,” “cook a meal,” or “cook someone a meal.”)
With transitive verbs, you have two candidates for the subject or topic of your sentence: a “doer” and a “done-to.” These are macro-labels to remind us that a “doer” is not always a willing agent, and a “done-to” not always a passive object acted upon and changed. (Think of “Tom received a strange email.”) So, you, the writer, get to choose which participant to focus on and make the subject of your sentence. To talk about the “done-to” of a transitive verb, you make it the subject of a passive voice sentence.
Incidentally, note that intransitive verbs may also have a “doer” or a “done-to” in the subject position,4 but, in English, the distinction is semantic. The table above shows how semantic roles and syntactic ones interact for both transitive and intransitive verbs. Passive voice simply means the “done-to” has been made the syntactic subject, or grammatical topic.
Why Does Participant Perspective Matter?
Some thinkers argue that the ability to shed light on an event from the vantage point of different participants is what defines being human.5 The passive is a construction used to focus on the participants that relish, experience, endure, suffer, or witness the event described by the verb. It lays the path to abstractions and categorizations like “dispossessed,” “persecuted,” or “empowered.”
But from a practical standpoint, why would you want to make the “done-to” the subject of your sentence? Precisely because it allows you to show the same event through a shift in perspective. Compare the following sentences:
- You will receive a reminder about your next appointment.
- A reminder will be sent to the patient.
In the first sentence above, the active voice provides information to the patient about a product for the patient (i.e., the reminder). In the second, the passive voice provides information about a process to someone who is not the patient, perhaps staff members in training.
In the flow of text, you want to align the topic of discourse (what your overall message is about) with the topic of your sentences, which is often the subject. This alignment contributes to the coherence and readability of the text. In spoken language, you can use nuance and intonation, but in written language you need topicalization strategies. Of course, the “doer” and “done-to” are not the only options for sentence topic. Through fronting (moving a phrase to the beginning of the sentence), you can topicalize an active voice object, a complement, or an adjunct phrase, as in “To pass the time, we sang together.”
Let’s see when the passive voice should be activated.
1. Short Passive: When the “doer” is unknown, untimely, or irrelevant to the story, the short passive makes the “done-to” the subject and omits the by-phrase that would convey information about the “doer.” For example:
- JFK is assassinated.
- A self-portrait by Rembrandt, valued at $36 million, was taken from the Swedish National Museum in 2000.
- Mistakes were made.
This last sentence exemplifies the most vilified use of the passive voice precisely for omitting the “doer.” Politicians are notorious for abusing the short passive to shake off responsibility. George Orwell famously (and perhaps not all that felicitously) described in 1946 how political discourse hides behind euphemistic expressions, including the passive voice.6 Today, the use of the phrase “mistakes were made” even has its own entry on Wikipedia, citing abusers from Ulysses Grant to Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. The flagrant lack of mea culpa led political analyst Bill Schneider to suggest that Washington’s use of the passive had become a new tense to be called “the past exonerative.”7
In defense of the short passive, linguist Geoff Numberg makes a strong plea when he reimagines popular songs edited to avoid the passive.8 After revisions, he says, “we’re left with The Animals’ ‘Please Don’t Let Anybody Misunderstand Me’ and the Eurhythmics’ ‘This Is What They Make Sweet Dreams Out Of.’ Not to mention Elvis’ ‘Someone or Something Has Shaken Me All Up.’”
2. Long Passive with Relevant or Heavy By-Phrase: This is the prototypical long passive with a by-phrase revealing the “doer.” For example:
- “Whole Foods, who packs a month’s supply of food in a single grocery bag, was bought by Amazon, who packs a paper clip in a refrigerator box.”
- “During his last trip to Granada, the professor was gifted a chair that was sat on by Federico García Lorca.”
But, if the “doer” is known and relevant, why bring it up last? Remember, passivization makes the “done-to” the grammatical subject or topic of your sentence. By revealing the “doer” last, you, the writer, add new information about your chosen topic in an orderly manner (following the “old before new” mantra). This is very handy when the “doer” is truly breaking news or changing the reader’s perception of the “done-to.”
The long passive is also useful in dependent clauses that require a long fragment as a “doer.” In these cases, it is also your reader’s memory that you cater to. For, example:
- “The story is about Rebecca, Jack, and their three children, who are virtually triplets. Two of them are biological twins. The third triplet died at birth. But on that day, Jack decides to adopt an orphaned newborn to restore the threesome. The baby, Jack tells his wife, had been brought to the hospital by a fireman who had been dissuaded from adopting the child himself.
In the passive sentence, the baby, the hospital, the fireman, and the non-adoption enter the stage of the text on cue. If we edit the passive out, the cast of characters enters haphazardly and confuses the reader (e.g., Somebody dissuaded a fireman from adopting a baby. The fireman brought the baby to a hospital…) Note also that splitting the sentence does little for its overall readability.
3. Phrasal Passives: A nifty variation on the passive is to use the subject and the past participle without a tensed auxiliary, turning it into a phrase that you can use as an adjunct or modifier or as a heading by itself. The use of phrasal passives is frequent in newspaper headlines:
- “Twin-Sized Mattress Barely Slept On.”
- “Owls Encouraged by Second-Half Ground Effort in Loss to Houston.”
4. Causative Passives (with Get / Have + Participle): In causative constructions, a grammatical subject is indirectly responsible for a task that someone else carries out on his behalf or to his detriment. The subject may have delegated the task willingly or may have unwillingly enabled it. The “done-to” can be the subject of the main clause or of an embedded clause. Here are a few more examples from published articles:
- “Zhang Zetian, China’s youngest female billionaire, got photographed by the paparazzi again.”
- “When you forget to lock your car overnight, you’re going to get robbed.”
- “My grandfather […] had him investigated by a private eye.”
As in short and long passives, the “done-to” is fronted to focus the flow of information on this new topic. In addition, causative passives carry a connotation of advantage or disadvantage that is itself a useful tool.
A Writer’s Toolbox
The guardians of the active voice might do well to revisit their disapproval of the passive as weak, evasive, or convoluted. We have seen in the four options discussed here that the passive voice can be punchy, compact, and thought-provoking. Keep it as a crafty tool in your writer’s toolbox! It’s up to you to use it (as any other writing tool) in clear, timely, and meaningful ways.
- Pullum, Geoffrey. “Fear and Loathing of the English Language.” In Language and Communication (University of Edinburgh, January 2014), http://bit.ly/Pullum-English.
- The Jedi master in the Star Wars films uses quirky sentence structures, such as “Much to learn you still have.”
- Remember that voice is one of several verb features. Others include tense, aspect, mood, person, and number.
- Linguists now distinguish between intransitive verbs with “doer” or “done-to” subjects as unergatives and unaccusatives, respectively. Some examples are “run,” “cook,” and “sing” versus “arrive,” “stay,” and “disappear.”
- Kristeva, Julia. Pouvoirs de l’horreur. Essai sur l’abjection (Seuil, 1983), 45.
- Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language,” first published in Horizon (London, April 1946). Note that Orwell used the passive extensively even in this essay and in his writing, and he never advocated to banish the passive from discourse, but to use it appropriately (http://bit.ly/politics-language).
- Bill Schneider, a political analyst, journalist, and professor. See Broder, John. “Familiar Fallback for Officials: ‘Mistakes Were Made,’” The New York Times (March 14, 2007), http://bit.ly/Broder-mistakes.
- Listen to “Passionate About the Passive Voice,” Geoff Numberg’s interview with Dave Davies, broadcast on NPR’s Fresh Air on May 1, 2009, http://bit.ly/NPR-passive.
Romina Marazzato Sparano is a translator and educator specializing in medical localization and linguistics. She is currently pursuing research in linguistics, plain language, and U.S. Spanish. She has worked with Fortune 500 and top medical instruments companies. She has taught translation and localization courses and designed and chaired the Master of Arts in Translation/Localization Management Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She volunteers in leadership roles in several professional organizations. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.