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Terms of the Trade: Active and Passive Voice

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Terms of the Trade

One should always prefer the active voice over the passive, they tell us. Baloney. Active and passive are technical grammatical terms that have nothing to do with how active or passive your writing is. The distinction between the two forms actually has to do with whether the focus of your statement is the actor or the recipient of the action, the doer or the done-to. Sometimes the doer is more important than the done-to. Sometimes it is the other way round. For example:

James was killed.

This sentence puts the emphasis on the recipient of the action, the person done to. It is about James. James is someone we care about and therefore we care that he was killed. This fact is more important to us, more immediate, than the question of who or what killed him.

As is possible with a passive construction, this sentence does not say who killed James. Perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps he died when his regiment rose out of the trenches into the path of enemy fire on the fields of Flanders — killed by someone he never met who had no idea whether or not his bullets killed anyone or not. The key information in this sentence is not the killing, but the being killed, not the person who did the killing, but the person who was killed, because it is that person, not their killer, who we know and care about and whose death has an impact on our lives. It is James who is important in this sentence.

The sentence could be expanded to say how he died.

James was killed by enemy fire in Flanders.

The construction is still passive, and appropriately so. It is still James we care about. To rewrite the sentence in active voice, we would have to change the emphasis:

Enemy fire killed James in Flanders.

If any writer or editor suggests to you that this sentence is an improvement because it is in active voice, their ears should be boxed by you. They have let some silly formulaic idea overtake all sense of both meaning and style.

Technically, the terms active and passive are entirely appropriate. They emphasize the doer and the done-to respectively and when it comes to doing and being done to, the doer is active and the done-to is passive, at least in respect to the action in question. But it is quite beyond reason to suggests that we must always be more interested in the doer than the done-to. The choice between active and passive voice is simply this: If the sentence is about the doer, use the active voice. If the sentence is about the done-to, use the passive voice. Neither is right or wrong; they are each appropriate to their purpose. One might as well develop a prejudice for right-handed gloves over left-handed gloves as for active over passive constructions.

Why then this widespread hate-on for the passive voice? It seems to trace back to several books and articles giving advice on writing to civil servants, most of it originating in the first half of the twentieth century. It was the habit of civil servants, then as now, to attempt to avoid assigning responsibility for actions. Thus they would rather say,

Millions of dollars were stolen from the public.

Than:

The Minister of Trade stole millions of dollars from the public.

Here the ability of the passive voice to focus attention on the done-to (the millions of dollars) rather than the doer (the Minister of Trade) is used to hide the guilty party. (Note that this is the done-to in the grammatical sense — the minister stole the money — not the political sense — the minister robbed the public. The public are the real victims in either case, but grammatically the act of stealing is performed upon the thing stolen, not those it is stolen from.)

Thus these books of advice to civil servants urged them to eschew the passive voice as a means to ensure that they did not habitually obscure the actor in their writing. Some of these books, however, became adopted as more general guides to good writing, and they influence our dictums on style and writing practice to this day. And their specific and pointed critique of one craven habit of the civil servant has become broadened into a critique of the passive voice in general.

However, the use of active voice does not in itself force the perpetrator of the act into the open. Consider:

An arrow struck Tom.

Here the arrow is the active subject of the sentence. Grammatically, the arrow is the doer and Tom the done-to. But, of course, the arrow is not the real actor here. The real actor is the archer. Grammatical subject and real world actor don’t actually have much to do with each other and it is just as easy to obscure the actor in active voice as it is in passive. Just as we noticed above the difference between the Minister of Trade stealing money and robbing the public, so here we have the difference between the arrow striking Tom and the archer shooting Tom. It is the choice of verb, rather than the choice of voice, that obscures or reveals the true actor.

Archer with bow and arrow
Paul Mercuri / Public domain

But to really understand what is going on with passive and active voice, and why we need both, consider these four alternatives:

1. Tom was struck by an arrow.

2. An arrow struck Tom.

3. An archer shot Tom.

4. Tom was shot by an archer.

Each of these sentences conveys the same information. (An arrow, by definition, is shot by an archer, unless your meaning is that one fell off a shelf.) But think about them as analogous to how a movie director might choose to film the scene.

  1. Tom is in frame. An arrow enters the frame and strikes Tom with a sickening thud.
  2. The shot starts with the arrow in flight. The camera pans quickly to follow the flight of the arrow, with the sound of it whistling through the air, until it halts abruptly when it strikes Tom.
  3. The archer is in frame. He puts an arrow on the string, looses it, and the camera pans to follow its flight as before.
  4. Tom is in frame as before. The arrow strikes him and the camera pans rapidly across the field to the archer who loosed the arrow, zooming in on the expression on his face.

Each of these shots invites us to see the same event in a different way.

  1. Emphasizes the death of Tom. The arrow and the archer are incidental, it is the death of Tom, pure and simple, that we are invited to focus on.
  2. Emphasizes the danger of the battle field. Arrows whizzing through the air can bring death indiscriminately, as illustrated by the death of Tom. (Notice that in the movies, it is generally a minor character or an extra who is killed in this shot.)
  3. Emphasizes the skill of the archer, but also Tom’s victimhood. By showing the perpetrator we see not just Tom’s death, but his death as the result of a deliberate act by another.
  4. Emphasizes the culpability of the archer. By ending the shot on the archer, it invites us to ponder their guilt in the act.

The effects of the four versions of the sentence above (two active, two passive) invite us to consider the same aspects of the event as their respective movie shots. Any suggestion that a sentence can be improved by changing it from passive to active, therefore, is bogus at the grammatical level. Any such change will change the focus of the sentence. Unless the problem is with the focus, therefore, the change will be inappropriate.

It may be that in a particular case it would be preferable to focus on the victimhood of Tom or the danger of the battlefield rather than the death of Tom or the culpability of the archer. In these cases, a change from passive to active would be appropriate. But the reverse could just as equally be true, requiring the switch from active to passive.

It may indeed be a fault of beginning writers to be timid about identifying the perpetrator of an act (particularly in non-fiction). Because they are reluctant to accuse, they may choose the passive voice (though equally choose a different verb – stole instead of robbed). But if that is the case, the appropriate education to give them is to tell them that they should consider where the emphasis should lie in each sentence they write, and to show them how the choice of sentence construction changes where the emphasis falls. Simply telling them to avoid the passive voice is tantamount to professional misconduct. Not only is the advice incorrect, it is actively misleading, and it misses the opportunity to teach them something genuinely valuable about writing.

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One reply on “Terms of the Trade: Active and Passive Voice”

In my past life as a technical writer, there were times when I didn’t have certain information, so I would deliberately use the passive — even at the risk of a scolding by the editors — in order to de-emphasize the missing details. It’s a wonderful tool for that, but the stigma against using it was great, and I felt like a guilty kid sweeping a broken vase under the carpet.

Avoiding passive is not the worst advice one can give, especially for newbie writers (especially tech writers and, perhaps, civil servants) — it still can cause confusion for some ESL readers — but the advice is usually given without any nuance. A mature communicator with a good command of the language should be able to use a variety of constructs to convey the necessary information, as you demonstrated with poor, arrow-riddled Tom.

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