language corner

Aggressive passive

Why active voice is not always better
October 29, 2013

Strunk & White hated it. George Orwell did, too. Nearly every grammar text and English teacher say it:

The passive voice must be avoided.

Many of you will be holding your ears in pain or despair and yelling: “It should be ‘Avoid the passive voice.’ It’s shorter; it’s clearer; it’s active!”

But calm that jerking knee while we give a little background.

In 1918, William Strunk wrote in The Elements of Style: “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” In 1946, George Orwell wrote in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” The editors of the Associated Press Stylebook advise, “The active voice is preferred for most news stories.” The Chicago Manual of Style says: “As a matter of style, passive voice … is typically, though not always, inferior to active voice.” (Emphasis added in all quotations.)

Please read the italicized words carefully. They do not say: “Use passive voice under pain of death.” They say: “Most of the time, active voice is better.”

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Active voice is better because, well, it’s active. Instead of writing “A meeting of the City Council was convened yesterday,” writing “The City Council met yesterday” is four words shorter, and more to the point. But some writers will make every sentence active just because they’re afraid their English teachers will rise up and smite them if they use passive voice.

In fact, though “everyone” says to avoid it, the use of passive voice is actually increasing. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage even says that “studies show the passive to be much more frequently used by the educated than by the uneducated.”

Relax. It may be okay. The writer and prose studier Constance Hale put it this way:

[S]ome of the worst writing around suffers from inert verbs and the unintended use of the passive voice. Yet the passive voice remains an important arrow in the rhetorical quiver.

The trick is to know when to use it.

Passive voice is better when the object of the action is more important than the subject performing the action, or when the subject performing the action is unknown. “Joseph Doke was shot as he walked to work” is necessary if the person doing the shooting is unknown. You can write “Someone shot Joseph Doke on his way to work,” but that puts the emphasis on the shooter instead of the shootee.

This does not excuse the weasel-mouth passive voice of people trying to point the finger of blame elsewhere. “The vase was broken” often means “I broke the vase,” or “I know who did, but I ain’t sayin’.” Or the classic “Mistakes were made.”

Most passive forms can be made active just by switching subject and object. But do it because it meets your purpose, not because it follows a rule.

Chicago says:

The choice between active and passive voice may depend on which point of view is desired. For instance, the mouse was caught by the cat describes the mouse’s experience, whereas the cat caught the mouse describes the cat’s.

The passive voice always has a form of the verb “to be,” combined with the other verb’s past participle, but it’s one of the many myths of passive voice that all uses of the verb “to be” create passive voice. Sometimes, “to be” is not just “to be.”

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.