So in this post I will look at: what you really look like; how the passive is misidentified and misunderstood; and how you can be used most effectively.
There is a kernel of truth behind the ‘avoid passive verbs’ refrain, however poorly formulated, and we must uncover that too. Finally, I will stop addressing you in the second person, as that could quickly get tedious.
A word about references
There’s a lot of one-upmanship in grammar talk, and I come only as a student of these things, not an expert.
But I do rest my thoughts on the works of the very clever people at Language Log, the web’s leading linguistics blog, which has been discussing the issue in great depth for several years, and specifically on Fear and Loathing of the English Passive by Geoffrey Pullum, Language Log co-founder and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English language.
My interest in this area long precedes my discovery of Language Log, but the Log has massively advanced my understanding and informed this post; any errors that remain are of course my own.
What the passive looks like
Before looking at how people get the passive wrong, let’s run through what it is and what it looks like.
The passive in English is one of two voices, along with the active. It’s constructed by a combination of verbs – most basically, the auxiliary verb ‘be’ + a past participle, as in ‘The copy was approved by Compliance yesterday’.
In an active construction, the subject of the verb is typically the agent of the action or change of state the verb describes, e.g:
- ‘Compliance [agent/subject] have approved the copy [patient/object]’.
If we flip this into the passive, we see that the subject is no longer the agent:
- ‘The copy [subject] has been approved by Compliance’.
‘The copy’ governs the verb as its grammatical subject, but it does not do the action which the verb describes.
The above example is a long passive, with the ‘by’-phrase making the agent explicit; there is also such a thing as a short passive, where the agent isn’t made explicit, e.g. ‘The copy has been approved’.
[The examples we’ve looked at so far come under the basic passive forms, but in his paper Geoffrey Pullen identifies at least six more passive constructions, including: embedded passives (‘We had the copy approved by Compliance’); adjectival passives (‘That copy is approved’); ‘get’-passives (‘We got the copy approved by Compliance’); and concealed passives (‘That copy badly needs approving).]
Note, though, that agent and subject aren’t always the same even in the active voice.
For example, in the active sentence, ‘This shirt irons well’, the subject is ‘the shirt’ but the agent is not specified.
In the active sentence, ‘He received a lot of criticism for his team’s copy,’ you could argue that the agent of the sentence is the one criticising the subject (In a passive-voice sentence, the subject is never the agent).
How we get the passive wrong
Strictly, the passive lives at the level of the clause or sentence rather than the phrase or word, so it’s more correct to talk of ‘passive sentences’ and ‘passive constructions’ than of ‘passive verbs’.
And it’s quite incorrect to talk about ‘passive tense’, since we can make passive constructions in any tense:
- The copy will be approved by Compliance tomorrow.
- The copy has already been approved by Compliance.
- The copy is being approved by Compliance as we speak.
- By this time tomorrow, the copy will have been approved by Compliance.
Yet a Google search for ‘passive tense’ yields more than 60,000 results.
Equipped with just a language degree and an amateur’s interest in linguistics, I have been spotting misidentifications of, and misunderstandings about, the passive voice from my first job in journalism, with the magazine group Emap, almost 25 years ago.
At Emap we were issued with a little in-house guide called The Writer’s Bible, which talked about the ‘passive tense’ and included several ‘passive’ examples which were actually active voice.
Since then I have come across dozens of such glitches; to cite just a few:
- A tone of voice workshop I attended by a top brand agency did a whole section on the evils of the passive voice, illustrated with several examples which were actually in the active voice.
- A successful healthcare provider issued brand guidelines on writing in a ‘more active’ way, illustrated with a Before/Passive text and a more Active/After version. Only the After example actually contained more passive constructions than the Before version!
- This (perfectly well-written) Econsultancy post advises on the subject of ‘good copy’: “Use an active voice, not a passive one.” Yet it actually begins with a passive construction (“We are often asked about the fundamentals of ecommerce.”) and contains at least another half-dozen passive constructions in the space of a few hundred words.
- A BBC News style guide gives two example sentences to explain active and passive, one of which is supposed to be passive voice: “There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.”
This sentence begins with an impersonal construction (“there were”) and makes odd use of “in which”, as if in a deliberate attempt to make it feel clunkier; but it is in the active voice nonetheless.
- A speech made to the European Commission by Plain English Campaign founder Chrissie Maher advises: “Be personal and stay active. Use ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’, and […] use the active, not the passive, voice of a verb.
It is surprising how much of a difference those little changes make to the tone and sense of what you are writing.
And just because the passive has been used in the original language, that doesn’t mean that you have to use the passive in English.” (“Has been used” is a passive construction in English, ironically, and a perfectly respectable use.)
Where does passive’s bad rep come from? And what is it good for?
“A diverse assortment of unpleasant maladies will afflict your work, it is claimed, if you use passives,” writes Geoffrey Pullum. “Your writing will become weak, dull, vague, cowardly, bureaucratic and dishonest.”
Passive-bashing has a long history. It was condemned by Strunk and White in The Elements of Style (first published 1918), ironically in a passage making liberal use of the passive voice.
Still more famously, it was proscribed in an essay by Orwell – even more ironically, a writer with a higher-than-average passive count across the body of his work.
These writers were targeting writing that was clunky and ponderous, and over time the idea of the passive as weaselly and evasive got folded in too.
The absence of the agent in the short passive form, as described above, seems to be the culprit for that; suddenly, any sentence where it’s not clear who’s doing what was being labelled by usage and writing ‘experts’ as ‘passive voice’.
A few years back I commented on an Econsultancy post about calls-to-action which criticised the phrase ‘click here’ as being passive voice.
You might not think ‘click here’ a good CTA, and I’d agree; but it’s certainly in the active voice (‘Be clicked!’ would be passive voice).
Thus the passive has become synonymous with what Language Log calls ‘vagueness about agency’.
There are several problem with this line of thought. Here are a few:
- Many of the examples (“mistakes have occurred,” “fighting ensued,” “click here,” etc) simply aren’t in the passive voice, so we need a better explanation of what, if anything, is wrong with the writing.
- Sometimes the agent simply isn’t that important to the sentence. Compare “my best friend’s just been diagnosed with cancer” (passive voice) to “a specialist has just diagnosed my best friend with cancer” (active voice).
- Sometimes we don’t know who the agent is. Compare “I’ve been mugged!” (passive voice) with “Someone has mugged me!” (active voice).
- Self-appointed writing experts tend to tar all forms of the passive with the vagueness brush, but one of the beauties of the long passive is that enables you to go big on detail about the agent in a way that could quickly become clunky in the active.
Compare “The copy’s finally been approved by the very Compliance team that told us a month ago that we’d never be allowed to talk about our products like this” (passive voice), with: “The very Compliance team that told us a month ago we’d never be allowed to talk about our products like this has finally approved our copy” (active voice).
This point also supports the end-weight principle of English syntax, where a long or complex element is moved to the back of the sentence for easier processing by the reader.
- There are many ways to be just as slippery about who did what in the active voice, e.g. “He sustained a fractured jaw” (active voice; but who hit him?); “The Sioux disappeared from the plains in the late 19th century” (active voice; but no mention of any massacres); “The factory closed down” (active voice; but the factory surely did not close itself); “Sorry – system upgrade work could mean longer call wait times” (active voice; but not much ownership of the problem).
- We place the most important element of a sentence at its start. Where that element is more patient than agent, a passive very naturally follows. Compare “JFK was assassinated in Dallas last night” (passive voice) with “An unknown gunman assassinated JFK in Dallas last night” (active voice).
An important use of the passive is to facilitate the coherent flow of information through a text. As writing unfolds, it moves typically from old to new, recapping familiar elements before telling us what’s new about them.
Hence the weirdness of this exchange:
When’s your mum here again?
Tuesday is when she’s coming.
When’s your mum here again?
She’s coming Tuesday.
Tuesday is new information – the mum is old news, linguistically speaking. In writing, the passive often helps to facilitate this old-new flow.
For example: “The stakeholders reviewed the copy yesterday. They identified lots of issues, most of which have been dealt with by my team now.”
The bolded words point back to an element already introduced in the text (old), before adding new information about them, and the passive (italicised) helps support this.
Compare the clunkier active-voice version: ‘They identified lots of issues. My team have dealt with most of them now.’
Is ‘passive language’ a thing? What should we advise?
When people criticise writing as being ‘passive’, as we have seen, they often mean that it’s vague about agency or that the writer is refusing to take ownership of their actions – all those famous quotes like “mistakes were made,” and “I was economic with the actualité,” and the building society that wrote, “an error has appeared in your account.” (Only one of these is actually passive voice.)
It’s certainly good advice to be specific about agency in your writing. In his excellent book on technical writing, Style: Toward clarity and grace, Joseph Williams dispenses a very helpful way of making sure that our sentences feel like they have agents.
He proposes seeing each sentence as a story, with characters who carry out actions. To tell the most compelling story, the trick is to make sure that you identify the real characters – and turn them into your subject and object; and surface the key actions they’re carrying out – and make those your verbs.
“Readers are likely to feel they are reading clear, direct text,” Williams writes, “when (a) the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters, and (b) the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of.” Sound advice – and no mention of voice anywhere.
Take that sentence: “Sorry – system upgrade work could mean extended call wait times.” The real characters here are ‘we’, ‘our system’ and ‘you’.
The real actions are the upgrading work and the waiting, and the implied action of answering calls.
So following Williams’ formula (and tweaking the tone of voice), we end up with something more like: “Sorry, you may have to a little wait longer for us to answer your call at the moment, as we’re upgrading our system.”
Alternatively, the charge of ‘passive language’ can sometimes seems to mean the writing is lacking energy, punch, concision.
When I was at journalism school we were constantly advised to “use active verbs.” But this did not mean to avoid passive voice so much as to say ‘probe’ instead of ‘examine’, ‘try’ instead of ‘endeavour’, ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’ etc.
This is not bad advice either, albeit ambiguously phrased. For more on this point, see my article What is an active verb anyway?
Isn’t this all a bit much?
If this discussion all feels a bit nerdy, rest assured that we are only scratching the surface here: I’m sparing you Pullum’s talk of ‘middle voice’, the ‘passival’ and ‘the new-information condition on by-phrases’.
But why go into even this much detail, you ask?
Well, because the same half-baked nostrum about avoiding the passive is recycled in almost every piece of copywriting advice you’ll ever come across, usually by self-appointed experts who cannot actually identify the passive, who don’t get that the passive is a valuable tool in a writer’s kit like any other part of speech, and that a blanket ban on use of the passive voice does not a good writer make.
Some people argue that everyone gets the folk meaning of ‘passive language’ – weaselly, evasive, ponderous, woolly writing that fails to pack a punch – and that only pedants worry about technical ‘passive voice’, in the same way that only botanists care that bananas aren’t strictly fruit.
But ‘passive language’ is far too hazy a concept to actually help people tighten up their writing, because it crudely lumps together a whole range of things we have perfectly good names and concepts for (nominalisations, impersonal constructions, formal register, abstract verbs etc).
And anyway, why pay heed to an expert who doesn’t understand the terms of their own advice?
Last word to Geffrey Pullum:
It is surely not too much to ask that those who claim that the passive is bad should have some definition of the notion ‘passive’ in mind, and that their examples of passives should be passives according to that definition.
[But] we have seen that it is very common for critics who complain about the passive to be entirely unable to meet these conditions.