What is the passive voice and why am I not allowed to use it?

Contrary to received opinion, the passive voice is actually a subtle and rather fascinating part of speech, as effective as any other when properly used…

 What is the passive voice and why am I not allowed to use it?

Avoiding the passive will make you a better writer, the writing guides always tell us, while using the passive not only makes you a worse writer, it apparently somehow makes you a more passive person.

In fact, all the crimes that are laid at the door of the passive can be committed just as easily in the active voice, but the things that the passive is especially good at are its alone.

So what is this passive voice anyway? What does it look like? Why is it so misunderstood? And how can it be used effectively?

NB This post is informed by numerous posts on Language Log, the web’s leading linguistics blog, and Fear and Loathing of the English Passive by Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English language. Any errors that remain are of course my own.

What is the passive and what does it look like?

The passive in English is one of two voices, along with the active. It’s constructed by a combination of verbs – most basically, the auxiliary verb ‘be’ + a past participle, as in ‘The copy was approved by Compliance yesterday’.

In an active construction, the subject of the verb is typically the agent of the action or change of state the verb describes, eg:

  • ‘Compliance [agent/subject] have approved the copy [patient/object]’.

If we flip this into the passive, we see that the subject is no longer the agent:

  • ‘The copy [subject] has been approved by Compliance’.

In this second example, ‘the copy’ governs the verb as its grammatical subject, but it does not do the action which the verb describes.

The above example is a long passive, with the ‘by’-phrase making the agent explicit; there is also such a thing as a short passive, where the agent isn’t made explicit, eg ‘The copy has been approved’.

[The examples we've looked at so far come under the basic passive forms, but in his paper Geoffrey Pullen identifies at least 6 more passive constructions, including: embedded passives (‘We had the copy approved by Compliance’); adjectival passives (‘That copy is approved’); ‘get’-passives (‘We got the copy approved by Compliance’); and concealed passives (‘That copy badly needs approving).]

Note, though, that agent and subject aren’t always the same even in the active voice. For example, in the active sentence, 'This shirt irons well', the subject is 'the shirt' but the agent is not specified. The shirt is not doing the ironing, after all.

How we get the passive wrong

Strictly, the passive lives at the level of the clause or sentence rather than the phrase or word, so it’s more correct to talk of ‘passive sentences’ and ‘passive constructions’ than of ‘passive verbs’.

And it’s quite incorrect to talk about ‘passive tense’, since we can make passive constructions in any tense:

  • The copy will be approved by Compliance tomorrow.
  • The copy has already been approved by Compliance.
  • The copy is being approved by Compliance as we speak.
  • By this time tomorrow, the copy will have been approved by Compliance.

The passive voice is frequently misidentified and misunderstood. At my first job, for a magazine publisher, we were issued with a little in-house guide called The Writer’s Bible, which talked about the ‘passive tense’ and which included several ‘passive’ examples which were actually active voice.

Since then I have come across dozens of such glitches; to cite just a few:

  • A tone of voice workshop I attended by a top brand agency did a whole section on the evils of the passive voice, illustrated with several examples which were actually in the active voice. 
  • A successful healthcare provider issued brand guidelines on writing in a ‘more active’ way, illustrated with a Before/Passive text and a more Active/After version. Only the After example actually contained more passive constructions than the Before version! 
  • A BBC News style guide gives two example sentences to explain active and passive, one of which is supposed to be passive voice: 'There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.' 
  • This sentence begins with an impersonal construction ('there were') and makes odd use of 'in which', as if in a deliberate attempt to make it feel clunkier; but it is in the active voice nonetheless.

Where does passive’s bad rep come from? And what is it good for?

‘A diverse assortment of unpleasant maladies will afflict your work, it is claimed, if you use passives,' writes Geoffrey Pullum. ‘Your writing will become weak, dull, vague, cowardly, bureaucratic and dishonest.’

Passive-bashing has a long history. It was condemned by Strunk and White in The Elements of Style (first published 1918), ironically in a passage making liberal use of the passive voice.

Still more famously, it was proscribed in an essay by Orwell – even more ironically, a writer with a higher-than-average passive count across the body of his work.

These writers were targeting writing that was clunky and ponderous, and over time the idea of the passive as weaselly and evasive got folded in too.

The absence of the agent in the short passive form, as described above, seems to be the culprit for that; suddenly, any sentence where it’s not clear who’s doing what – what Language Log terms ‘vagueness about agency’ – was being labelled by usage and writing ‘experts’ as ‘passive voice’.

There are several problems with this line of thought. Here are a few:

  • Many examples of writing criticised for being ‘too passive’ or ‘passive language’ (‘mistakes have occurred’, ‘fighting ensued’, ‘click here’, etc) simply aren’t in the passive voice, so we need a better explanation of what, if anything, is wrong.
  • Sometimes the agent simply isn’t that important to the sentence. Compare ‘my best friend’s just been diagnosed with cancer’ (passive voice) to ‘a specialist has just diagnosed my best friend with cancer’ (active voice).
  • Sometimes we don’t know who the agent is. Compare ‘I’ve been mugged!’ (passive voice) with ‘Somebody has mugged me!’ (active voice).
  • Self-appointed grammar experts tend to tar all forms of the passive with the vagueness brush, but one of the beauties of the long passive is that enables you to go big on detail about the agent in a way that could quickly become clunky in the active. Compare, ‘The copy’s finally been approved by the very Compliance team that told us a month ago that we’d never be allowed to talk about our products like this’ (passive voice), with: ‘The very Compliance team that told us a month ago we’d never be allowed to talk about our products like this has finally approved our copy’ (active voice). (This point is also a good example of the end-weight principle of English syntax, where a long or complex element goes to the back of the sentence for easier processing by the reader.)
  • There are many ways to be just as slippery about who did what in the active voice, eg ‘He sustained a fractured jaw’ (active voice; but who hit him?); ‘The factory closed down’ (active voice; but the factory surely did not close itself); ‘Sorry – system upgrade work could mean longer call wait times’ (active voice; but not much ownership of the problem).
  • We place the most important element of a sentence at its start. Where that element is more patient than agent, a passive very naturally follows. Compare ‘JFK was assassinated in Dallas last night’ (passive voice) with ‘An unknown gunman assassinated JFK in Dallas last night’ (active voice).

Is 'passive language' a thing? What should we advise?

When people criticise writing as being ‘passive’, as we have seen, they often mean that it’s vague about agency or that the writer is refusing to take ownership of their actions – all those famous quotes like ‘mistakes were made’ and ‘I was economic with the actualité’. Or the building society that wrote, ‘an error has appeared in your account’. (Only one of these is actually passive voice by the way.)

It’s certainly good advice to be specific about agency in your writing. In his excellent book on technical writing, Style: Toward clarity and grace, Joseph Williams dispenses a very helpful way of making sure that our sentences feel like they have agents.

He proposes seeing each sentence as a story, with characters who carry out actions. To tell the most compelling story, the trick is to make sure that you identify the real characters – and turn them into your subject and object; and surface the key actions they’re carrying out – and make those your verbs.

‘Readers are likely to feel they are reading clear, direct text,’ Williams writes, ‘when (a) the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters, and (b) the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of.’ Sound advice – and no mention of voice anywhere.

Take that horrible sentence: ‘Sorry – system upgrade work could mean extended call wait times.’ How could we improve it?

Well, the real characters here are ‘we’, ‘our system’ and ‘you’. The real actions are the upgrading work and the waiting, and the implied action of answering calls. So following Williams’ formula (and tweaking the tone of voice), we end up with something more like: ‘Sorry, you may have to a little wait longer for us to answer your call at the moment, as we’re upgrading our system.’

Alternatively, the charge of ‘passive language’ can sometimes seem to mean the writing is lacking energy, punch, concision.

When I was at journalism school we were constantly advised to ‘use active verbs’. But this did not mean to avoid passive voice so much as to say ‘probe’ instead of ‘examine’, ‘try’ instead of ‘endeavour’, ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’ etc.

This is not bad advice either, albeit ambiguously phrased. For more on this point, see What is an active verb anyway?

Isn’t this all a bit much?

If this discussion all feels a bit nerdy, rest assured that we are only scratching the surface here: I’m sparing you Pullum’s talk of ‘middle voice’, the ‘passival’ and ‘the new-information condition on by-phrases’.

But why go into even this much detail, you ask?

Well, because the same half-baked nostrum about avoiding the passive is recycled in almost every piece of copywriting advice you’ll ever come across, usually by self-appointed experts who cannot actually identify the passive, who don’t get that the passive is a valuable tool in a writer’s kit like any other part of speech, and who fail to see that a blanket ban on use of the passive voice does not make for good writing.

Some people argue that everyone gets the folk meaning of ‘passive language’ – weaselly, evasive, ponderous, woolly writing that fails to pack a punch – and that only pedants worry about technical ‘passive voice’, in the same way that only botanists care that bananas aren’t strictly fruit.

But ‘passive language’ is far too hazy a concept to actually help people tighten up their writing, because it crudely lumps together a whole range of things we have perfectly good names and concepts for (nominalisations, impersonal constructions, formal register, abstract verbs etc).

And anyway, why pay heed to an expert who doesn’t understand the terms of their own advice? As Geoffrey Pullum puts it:

It is surely not too much to ask that those who claim that the passive is bad should have some definition of the notion 'passive' in mind, and that their examples of passives should be passives according to that definition.

[But] we have seen that it is very common for critics who complain about the passive to be entirely unable to meet these conditions.