UNDERSTANDING THE PASSIVE VOICE
Part 1 of 2
Years ago, the managing editor of a Midwest newspaper for which I was conducting a writing workshop confided that he’d recently banned a certain usage in his newspaper and that the newsroom staff had met the ban with resistance and hostility.
“It would be a great help if you supported the ban,” he said.
“What did you ban?” I asked warily. I’ve seldom met a language ban I liked.
“The verb ‘to be.’ ”
That stopped me.
“All of them?”
“Am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been?”
At first I didn’t speak. I couldn’t. I was considering the implications—and whether anyone could write at all, let alone well, under the strictures of such a ban. Then I asked the obvious question.
“To get rid of the passive voice.”
Now, the active voice and passive voice are matters of structure. Active voice: subject/verb/object (or stated another way: actor/action/acted upon). Passive voice: object/verb/subject—or merely object/verb:
Active: The pitcher threw the ball.
Passive: The ball was thrown by the pitcher.
Passive: The ball was thrown.
It’s true that the passive voice uses an auxiliary verb plus a past participle of another verb, and that the auxiliary is usually a form of the verb “to be.” (Notice the “was thrown” in the passive examples above.) But the active voice also uses plenty of “be” verbs. Banning “be” verbs to get rid of the passive voice is like blasting away on a blunderbuss to wipe out a gnat.
The bottom line is that this editor had banned something without understanding what he’d banned. Not that he’s the first to misunderstand the passive voice. Nor is he the first to suggest there’s something inherently wrong with “be” verbs. Apparently, some people—and some software designers—think that any sentence containing an auxiliary or “be” verb is in the passive voice. But that’s absurd. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is in the active voice—despite the “to be.” Subject (we), verb (hold) and object (truths) are in their active and most logical positions. Again, the passive voice identifies a certain structure—the subject of the verb, if present, is in the object’s position. To be passive, this passage might read: “These truths are held to be self-evident.” Or: “These truths are held by us to be self-evident.”
This celebrated passage does go on to use the passive voice, however: “that all men are created equal . . . that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To be active, that passage might read: “The Creator made human beings equal and endowed them with certain unalienable rights . . . among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But is that version more effective than the original?
The misunderstanding of the narrow terms “active voice” and “passive voice”—and the terms’ unwarranted broadening—has also led to the mistaken belief that any weak, static, or unassertive expression is “passive.” Or that hiding behind the language—refusing to be accountable—involves the passive voice. That may be (“mistakes were made!”), but not always and not necessarily.
Grammar checker software adds to the problem. Those programs hunt for auxiliary verbs and when they find one, announce that the sentence may be passive. In many cases, it isn’t, but the grammar checker’s caution further muddies already murky waters.
The result of all this confusion is a good deal of blather about the “passive” in writing—and avoiding it. Look at the opening line of the column you’re reading. It contains the words “for which I was conducting a writing workshop.” The editor’s ban of “to be” verbs would cause that clause to be rewritten, ostensibly because it is “passive.” But is it? No. Is it vague or flat or flabby by virtue of its “be” verb? To the contrary, I bet you didn’t even notice that was. That’s because, properly employed, “be” verbs are both indispensable and invisible. (Yes, I could have written “for which I conducted a writing workshop.” That version loses was as well as the “ing” suffix on conduct—and in many constructs, it would be preferred as cleaner and more concise. But the simple past tense “conducted” makes the workshop seem an event in the past whereas I wanted to capture the sense of something ongoing: This thing happened while this other thing was happening. Such writing concerns are subtle but well understood by both writer and reader, if only in a tacit and subterranean way.)
How might one meet the editor’s ban, and would it be worth the trouble? I could write: “a newspaper for which I’d agreed to conduct a workshop.” That’s a bit different to be sure, but is it better?
Let me add that there’s good reason to be wary of the passive voice – it can be vague and withhold vital information. And when the subject/actor is absent, it can be spineless, even cowardly. And it can be awkward, abstract, or wordy. Who would prefer the clunky “this column was written by me” to “I wrote this column”?
Rather than try to avoid the passive voice, however—which cannot sensibly be accomplished—we should spend our efforts not only on understanding its virtues and shortcomings, but also discerning when the passive voice is more effective than the active.
We’ll discuss some of the more complex aspects of the passive and active voice in the second part of this blog.
Meantime, a postscript: During our workshop, the managing editor lifted his ban on “be” verbs—to the great relief of his staff.
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[Parts of this blog originally appeared in Quill magazine.]