“Use the active voice.”
You’ve probably heard this advice before. It’s number 14 in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style -one of their “Elementary Principles of Composition”- and a commonly repeated bit of writing wisdom.
However, the active voice is not always preferable. The rule “use the active voice” doesn’t help us determine when it should be used, and slavish obedience to this rule will lead to ineffective usage. What we really need isn’t a rule to follow, but an understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the active and passive voice.
In this post, I want to look more closely at active and passive voice,with the goal of better understanding why you might want to use one instead of the other.
Understand the difference between active and passive voice; identify active or passive voice; translate between active and passive voice; recognize strengths and weaknesses of active versus passive voice; choose active or passive voice based on the situation.
Active and Passive Voice
Active and passive voice is not a question of verb tense. Some people mistakenly believe that passive voice means to speak about things that have passed. But:
The dog eats the food
The dog ate the food
The dog was eating the food
are all in the active voice. Verb tense has nothing to do with it.
Active voice is determined by whether the subject of the sentence -in this case the dog- is performing the action. The dog is the subject, and the dog is performing the action of eating in all the above cases, so all are in the active voice.
The food was eaten by the dog
is the passive voice. In this case, the food is the subject of the sentence, and the food is being acted on by the verb. The dog is the one doing the action, even though the food is the subject of the sentence. The food is passive. So the subject of the sentence is passive. So this sentence is in the passive voice.
You can often identify the passive voice from the presence of the word “by”.
Exercise: identifying passive and active voice
Which of the following are passive voice and which are active voice:
The cats were fighting in the alley.
Susie was bitten by the chihuahua.
Her childhood home, her dolls, her drawings, were all destroyed by the blaze.
It was found by Herbert et al that “take the stairs” work-initiatives had no measurable impact on the health of non-sedentary employees.
He was a man of simple tastes.
On the island, right where the map had said -twenty paces from the big rock- the treasure had been found, a few feet below the sand.
The population had been decimated.
Exercise: translating active to passive, and assessing relative strengths and weaknesses of active and passive.
For each of the 7 sentences above, translate the passive constructions to active constructions, and vice-versa.
For each of the 7 translations you made, which version sounds better? Why?
Sometimes use passive voice?
Strunk and White advocate for use of the active voice, saying it “makes for more forcible writing”, “is usually more direct and vigorous”, and that the passive voice can be “less direct, less bold, and less concise”.
They do note, however, that passive voice is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary”. For this point, they give a pair of examples:
The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed today.
Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.
The preferred voice in this case is not based on which is more “forcible” or “bold” or “concise” but rather on the topic of the paragraph. As Strunk and White note, the former would be chosen in a paragraph about the dramatists, and the latter would be chosen for a paragraph about the tastes of modern readers.
Strunk and White don’t discuss the conditions under which passive voice would be preferable. They conclude only by saying that getting into the habit of writing in the active voice “makes for forcible writing”. That may well be so. But the advantages offered by “forcible” writing could sometimes be outweighed by whatever advantages are offered by the passive voice -if only we knew what they were!
The advantage of Strunk and White -in this case, and in most of the others- is that the brevity and lack of nuance makes the advice easy to follow. Professors and teachers can assign Elements of Style to their students and expect them to actually read and follow it. Their pithy advice will make a bad writer passable, but it won’t make a passable writer good. If we really care about our writing, what we need is not an oversimplified set of rules (“use the active voice”) but to understand the strengths and weaknesses of various grammatical structures. Active voice and passive voice are tools suited for different applications, and we need to know how to use both of them.
Fortunately, there is a guide for this. It’s from a book that is better than Elements of Style in every respect except simplicity: “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style”, by Virgina Tufte. Rather than just listing rules to follow, Tufte gives examples of good sentences and examines how they work. Where Strunk and White have a one page exhortation to use the active voice, Tufte devotes eleven pages to effective usage of the passive voice.
Strengths of passive voice
Since the end of a sentence naturally feels more stressed, the passive voice can be used to add emphasis to a particular word or words by shifting them into the final position:
I was tormented by strange hallucinations.
-Validimir Nabokov, Nabokov’s Congeries
Here, the passive voice is being used to shift the primary stress to where the author wants it, on the hallucinations.
A similar example comes from E.B. White, notwithstanding his injunction against passive construction:
Her body, if concealed at all, is concealed by a water lily, a frond, a bit of moss, or by a sarong – which is a simple garment carrying the implicit promise that it will not long stay in place.
-E.B. White, The Second Tree from the Corner
The passive voice can be used whenever the writer wants to avoid mention of agency. So:
My toddler broke your phone.
Your phone was broken.
Generally, the passive voice can be used anytime the writer wants to omit an agent, whether we don’t want indicate the agent, or because we don’t know, or because we don’t want the reader’s focus taken by the agent. For example:
The monument was destroyed.
We could say this if we didn’t know how it was destroyed, whether it was it a person, or people, or a natural event. But we might also say such a thing if it didn’t matter how it was destroyed.
The passive voice can be used to impart a feeling of divine command or natural law. Since the agent is omitted, these sentences can give a sense that it is simply describing the way things are:
There are rules and there are laws; they are well made. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place of the Gods -this is most strictly forbidden… These things are forbidden -they have been forbidden since the beginning of time.
-Stephen Vincent Benét, By the Water of Babylon
Sometimes we don’t want the subject to feel active. Maybe we want them to feel weak, or helpless, or the victim of circumstances. In general, we may want to express their passivity. This is done with passive constructions:
She was pulled by the tide.
They sailed and trailed and flew and raced and crawled and walked and were carried, finally, home.
-John Knowles, Indian Summer
Or, the example from Nabokov:
I was tormented by strange hallucinations.
-Validimir Nabokov, Nabokov’s Congeries
If I keep going through all the examples of Tufte, I’d risk just repeating everything she has to say on the matter. Instead, if you find that kind of discussion useful or interesting, I’d recommend just getting her book.
In these exercises we’ll practice making active constructions into passive constructions, in situations where it might be useful. The goal is to develop a sense of some other considerations a writer might make when deciding on a passive or active construction.
Make the injunction more powerful by omitting the agent with a passive construction:
“Billy said we’re not supposed to walk on the grass.”
Shift the subject to the terminal position of the sentence with a passive construction:
“Failing educational institutions and lack of employment opportunity have increased homelessness, drug addiction, and gang activity.”
Make Billy into the passive subject of the rescue, by using a passive construction:
“The firefighters carried Billy from the apartment.”
- Were the translated versions better? Why or why not?
- Pick one of the advantages of passive voice. Come up with a pair of example sentences to demonstrate this strength.
Passive voice and active voice are tools that are suited for different situations. A writer should know how to use both of them effectively. This requires practice with both, and reflecting on the effects each form has on the reader.
Active voice is generally more concise and more forceful. Passive voice has a number of uses: it is sometimes clearer; it is sometimes necessary, given the intended subject of the sentence; it can be used to shift the stress of the sentence; it can be used to omit the agent; it can complement the passivity of the subject; it can create rhetorical force.
There are other applications of the passive voice -and examples of usage- in Virginia Tufte’s book, “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style”.