Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The Passive Voice is Both Common and Perfectly Okay

I was thinking about writing rules and fake rules and so on from the previous post.

I thought I would take a moment to emphasize, NOT ONLY is “was” not always (or even usually) part of a passive construction, but also the passive voice IS ALLOWED. It’s actually both rather common and quite useful; sometimes even crucial. Allow me to provide a handful of examples.

Some of these, the astute reader will notice, do not actually use “was,” so if that’s your shorthand method of identifying the passive voice, back up and start looking at actor versus acted-upon. And if, God forbid, “was” is your teacher’s method of identifying the passive voice, you can undoubtedly slip in all kinds of passive constructions that he or she won’t even notice. If that’s the kind of thing that amuses you, I mean.

So:

1. The ax murderer was apprehended after a brief high-speed chase.

The essential information here is that the bad guy has been apprehended. We can assume that he was apprehended by the police, but the agent of his capture is not as important as the fact of his capture.

2. This house was built in the late 1800s.

Not only is the builder not important, most likely the builder is not known. How in the world would you re-cast this into the active voice? And why would you bother? It sounds fine with a passive construction. If you put “My house was built in the late 1800s” in an English paper, I bet the teacher wouldn’t notice the sentence uses the passive — even if she had just completed a lecture about the evils of the passive voice two days earlier, and even if she lectured about the evils of the word “was.”

3. My camera has been stolen!

You definitely don’t know the name of the burglar. “Someone stole my camera!” would work, but offers no improvement.

4. My dog was hit by a car, but he’s okay.

You are very unlikely to be more interested in the person who hit your dog, even if you know who it was, than in your dog’s wellbeing. “A car hit my dog” would sound silly. The passive voice puts the emphasis in the only reasonable place — on your dog — where it stays throughout even though this sentence shifts from passive to active halfway through.

Okay, let’s write a few more … here goes:

5. Manhattan has been destroyed by aliens!

6. My dogs are all thoroughly spoiled.

7. I was born in Houma, Louisiana.

8. They were a trifle anxious when the moaning began.

9. He was surrounded by lurching hordes of zombies.

10. Your meaning was most elegantly conveyed by a few well-chosen phrases, even though you chose to use the passive voice.

To sum up, basically you can just file Passive Voice under “Stuff I never think about; I just write sentences that work.” If I were writing an English paper, though, I might entertain myself by making sure lots of passive constructions appeared in it because that is indeed the sort of thing that amuses me.

Update: A commenter on Twitter pointed out that some of those examples are false passives. True! But not relevant to writers, where everything revolves around writing sentences that work, not on minutia regarding pseudo-passives and statal passives and whatever.

From time to time a writer may find herself in the position of needing to decide whether to accept a copy editor’s changes, and then if the copy editor happens to be concerned about passive constructions and pseudo-passive constructions, the writer *must* keep in mind that the goal is writing that works, nothing else. This hasn’t happened to me (yet). All my copy editors have done an admirable job. But I’ve heard stories …

Anyway! If you are actually super-keen on grammatical minutia — I admit I lean that way if I’m in the right mood — then here’s a good site for sorting out true passive constructions from various types of false passives.

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5 Comments The Passive Voice is Both Common and Perfectly Okay

  1. Pete Mack

    Claims that the passive voice is uniformly bad have never been heard by me; rather such claims are made that it should not be used to excess.

    Sorry, could not resist!

  2. James Pailly

    There are actually some fields where the active voice is discouraged. For example, in scientific writing you’re not supposed to say things like “the new drug killed the virus” but rather “the new drug was administered, and the virus was killed.”

    The reason, as I understand it, is that the active voice explicitly states a cause and effect relationship, so unless you’re 100% certain that you know what caused something to happen, it’s best to avoid active voice constructions. I’ve noticed court documents also lean heavily on the passive voice, possibly for similar reasons.

  3. Rachel

    There are actually some fields where the active voice is discouraged.

    Definitely. I did my share of passive-voice writing when I was a grad student, including my entire master’s thesis, which eventually became a paper in Am J of Botany.

    My understanding at the time was that the actors weren’t supposed to be important — attention was supposed to be focused on results. But probably the cause/effect thing was also a reason to stick mainly to passive.

  4. James Pailly

    That makes sense too, that in science we’re supposed to put an emphasis on the results and not the actors, which is literally what the passive voice does.

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