[Editor’s note: Jonathan Rogers has begun a newsletter in which he shares many years’ worth of practical advice on the craft of writing. He named it The Habit because, as he says, “good writing isn’t so much a matter of brilliance as a matter of habit: habits of seeing, habits of thinking, habits of working.”
What follows is a peek into his wisdom. If you’d like to read more, you can sign up for his newsletter here.]
The passive voice is a favorite of academics (“A study was conducted…”), politicians (“Mistakes were made…”), business memo writers (“The shipping department will henceforth be outsourced…”) and other communicators we love to hate. Indeed, the passive voice causes a lot of heartache for readers and writers alike. Somewhere along the line, you have probably been told to avoid passive voice. That’s not bad advice, except for the fact that sometimes the passive voice is exactly what you need. I just used it, in fact, in the sentence before last.
“Avoid passive voice” is a helpful rule of thumb; but it’s only a rule of thumb. The deeper rule is this: Make active voice your default. And the rule has this corollary: Use passive voice only when you have a good reason to.
A Working Definition
Every sentence describes an action. Every action has an actor. If the grammatical subject of a sentence is the actor, the sentence is in active voice. If the grammatical subject is anything besides the actor, the sentence is in passive voice. We could get into the technicalities of switching the verb to the fourth principle part (from, say, “ate” to “was eaten”) and inserting a to be verb, but if you are a native speaker of English, you do that grammar instinctively. For our purposes, it is much more important that you be able to see the difference between a sentence in which the actor is the grammatical subject (active voice) and a sentence in which the actor is not the grammatical subject (passive voice).
Consider this sentence:
Ken gave Barbie flowers.
Is that active or passive? It’s active: Ken is the subject of the sentence, and Ken is the person who is acting.
But English grammar is flexible. It doesn’t require that the actor be the grammatical subject. If you want the recipient of the action to be the grammatical subject, English allows you to do that.
Barbie was given flowers by Ken.
The action hasn’t changed in that sentence. There is still a handoff of flowers from Ken to Barbie. But the actor, Ken, is no longer the grammatical subject. Barbie, the recipient of the action, is now the grammatical subject.
I can even put the flowers the subject position, even though they are an inanimate object:
The flowers were given to Barbie by Ken.
You can do this with any sentence that has a direct or indirect object. “I took the bull by the horns” becomes “The bull was taken by the horns by me.” “Martha ate the cake” becomes “The cake was eaten by Martha.”
If you get in the habit of thinking in terms of actions and actors, and if you clearly distinguish between the actor and the grammatical subject (which may or may not be the same), it’s relatively easy to move back and forth between active and passive voice.
The Problems with Passive Voice
Good writing is largely a matter of managing your reader’s expectations. That doesn’t mean you always have to meet those expectations; in fact, good writing requires that you often surprise your reader. But you need to be aware that any word, phrase, or clause that doesn’t meet your reader’s expectations (including unconscious expectations), attracts her attention.
Extra Work for Your Reader
Our brains are wired to expect the actor to sit in the subject position of a sentence. When the actor is the subject, we feel that things are moving right along. We feel that the grammar is guiding us toward that burning question, “Who did what?”
The reader, of course, is fully capable of mentally flipping a passive sentence back to active and knowing who did what. In spite of the grammar differences, everybody knows that the following three sentences all describe the same action, the same actor, and the same recipients of the action:
(A) Ken gave Barbie flowers.
(B) Barbie was given flowers by Ken.
(C) Flowers were given to Barbie by Ken.
But you need to be aware that if you phrase that sentence as either (B) or (C), your reader has to translate it back to (A) in order to decode the sentence. If you ask your reader to go to that extra trouble, she is going to want to know why (if only at subconscious level). Granted, it’s a tiny amount of extra trouble you’re requiring of your reader, and there can be good reasons to ask it of her, as we’ll see below. But unless you have a specific reason to use the passive voice, stay in the active voice. Save the reader’s energy and attention for those moments when you really need it.
Let us return to that passive sentence, Barbie was given flowers by Ken. As I mentioned above, Ken is still the actor. But where is Ken in this sentence? He’s tucked away in that prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence. The actor is now a lowly object of the preposition by.
Or what about this version?
Barbie was given flowers.
Who is the actor here? Presumably Ken. But maybe not. We have no way of knowing from the sentence.
Ken went to all the effort here. He spent his hard-earned money. He drove to the florist. He walked up Barbie’s driveway and handed over the flowers. And yet the passive voice relegates him to a prepositional phrase, or perhaps even erases him completely. This is what I mean by “fuzzy agency.”
Generally speaking, you don’t want to add word-count without adding additional meaning. It takes more words to describe an action in passive voice than in active voice.
The active sentence Ken gave Barbie flowers is four words long. The passive sentence Barbie was given flowers by Ken is six words long. That’s 50% more words for 0% more meaning. Or consider the passive sentence Barbie was given flowers. At four words, it’s the same length as the active sentence, but it conveys significantly less information (specifically, it doesn’t identify the person whom Barbie has to thank for her flowers).
When is Passive Voice Useful?
Every problematic construction in the English language exists because there are times when it’s not problematic, but exactly what a writer needs. Yes, you should treat the active voice as your default mode. But there are plenty of situations in which you’ll find it best to switch from default mode into the passive voice. Here are three of those situations.
Passive voice is perfect for expressing passivity.
Maybe this one is self-evident. Consider this sentence:
Andrew was bullied as a child.
To be a victim of bullying is to be in a posture of passivity. In this case, it doesn’t matter who the bullies were, even if the writer happens to know the bullies’ names. The important figure here is Andrew. The passive voice allows the writer to put Andrew in that important subject slot, even though he is not the agent in this situation. A sentence like Pete was convicted of perjury works in much the same way. It was a jury that convicted Pete of perjury (or was it a judge? or the state?). What matters is that Pete was convicted, not who convicted him. Here the passive voice has the added bonus of saving me from having to figure out exactly who convicts people of perjury (though, now that I think of it, probably the reason I don’t know the answer to that question is that people always frame that idea of “conviction” in the passive voice. Hmmm….)
The passive voice is helpful when I don’t know the actor.
Consider this passive sentence:
My bike was stolen yesterday.
I don’t know who stole my bike. If I did, I’d be reporting them to the police instead of writing sentences about them. So this is a perfect opportunity to use the passive voice. If I’m really being a stickler for the active voice, I suppose I could say, Some jerk stole my bike yesterday.
The passive voice is a great way to conceal or deny agency.
This is where the passive voice can get nefarious. When I’ve broken a lamp, I can say The lamp was broken. That’s not a lie. It’s just that the passive voice allows me to leave out one of the most important bits of information. I call this the “Mistakes were made” use of the passive voice. It is the refuge of obfuscators, politicians, deadbeats, self-pitiers, and the passive aggressive. This application largely accounts for the passive voice’s bad reputation.
Passive voice can be a way to direct your reader’s attention.
The subject of sentence enjoys a place of privilege in the reader’s mind. The reader pays extra attention to whatever noun is in that slot. The passive voice allows you to bring some noun besides the actor into that place of prominence. We have already looked at the sentence Andrew was bullied as a child, in which Andrew, not the bullies, is the focus of the sentence.
Here are two sentences that describe the same action, the first in the active voice, the second in the passive:
An unusually large piano player ejected Clarence from the saloon.
Clarence was ejected from the saloon by an unusually large piano player.
There’s not a huge difference between those sentences. But you can feel a difference, can’t you? The first sentence asks you to give a little more attention to the piano player. The second sentence asks you to give a little more attention to Clarence. You have the passive voice to thank for that slight change in emphasis.
This is just nuance. But the difference between good writing and great writing is largely nuance.
If You Ask More of the Reader, You Have to Give More
Remember, every time you use the passive voice, you’re asking something of your reader. You’re asking her to take an extra step of decoding. Do you have a good reason for asking your reader to go to that extra trouble? If so, by all means use the passive voice. But if you don’t, stick with the active.
And if you feel like going the extra mile, there are two ways you can lend a hand to Jonathan’s good work.
1) If you found this letter helpful, please forward it to a friend who might benefit, and/or share on social media.
2) If you have a question that you’d like Jonathan to address in a future installment of The Habit, send him an email here.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.