Passive Voice & Lazy Writing

Believe it or not, I do put clear and accurate communication ahead of grammatical perfection, at least when it comes to technical and scientific writing. When it comes to fiction, I’d say that the ability to tell an good story well comes first. But grammar, spelling, and punctuation are the tools of the trade, and using them correctly means removing speed bumps that stand between the minds of the writer and the reader.

In He Said, She Said, I wrote:

Until recently, the best way to start a flamewar among writers was to ask, perhaps disingenuously, ‘What’s so wrong with passive voice?’

My friend Neeraj (whom I delight in driving to the dictionary with words like “disingenuously”) asked:

So, what should be the priority then? Active or Passive, does it matter in a technical blog too? I remember in my school days, our science teacher used to say that examiner should be able to understand the explanation for science and the English part can be neglected if its fine but not correct or perfect. Don’t I have the exclusion here then?

PS: Though the medium was English but still English is not our primary language and I wonder why I read all the subjects in English then?

I would agree with the science teacher, that in technical and scientific writing, clarity should be the #1 priority. This question brings to mind the old verse:

Johnny was a chemist,
But Johnny is no more –
For what he thought was H2O
Was H2SO4!

English as Lingua Franca

First, to answer the question of “Why English?” I’m tempted to say, “Because Chinese requires double the space on a hard drive and it’s so darned hard for the rest of us to learn!” but instead, I’m going to point to another article that explains it in historical terms: FYI: How Did English Get To Be The International Language Of Science? For another viewpoint, one that argues the dangers inherent in English as the lingua franca of Science and other fields, see The Global Imperialism of English: Impacts on Science.

What is Passive Voice?

Before discussing priorities and grammar, let’s make sure everyone “gets” what we mean by passive vs. active voice. Active voice is nice and direct: Somebody did something. Maybe they did it to someone, but we know who did it. This is the language of children and good journalists. “Bob robbed the bank.” Or, “I shot the Sheriff.”

In passive voice, something is being done. We don’t know by whom; we’re left to guess. “The Deputy was shot, but he is expected to live.” In the first part of the sentence, passive voice is used because we don’t know who shot the Deputy. (All I know is, it wasn’t me!) If we knew, though – if the ugly truth was that the Sheriff  shot the Deputy – then using passive voice to cover it up is wrong.

In the second part of the sentence, “…but he is expected to live,” we could rewrite that to say, “but his doctors, nurses, family, coworkers, and members of the press corps expect him to live.” Does it matter who expects? Not really – the fact that he’s not likely to die is the whole point, so there’s nothing wrong with using passive voice there, either.

Priority: Active or Passive?

Back to the matter of clarity: Which is clearer? Which is more complete, precise, and accurate?

  • The flower was opened.
  • The warmth and UV rays of the sun opened the flower.

In most non-fiction, active voice is the better choice unless the answer is “I don’t know” or “It doesn’t matter.”

In fiction – as opposed to journalism – a little caginess is allowed. Imagine a murder mystery. The lead detective arrives on the scene:

“The victim lay sprawled across the lawn. Her skull was cracked open; gray matter flecked the green grass. It appeared that she had been bludgeoned with a heavy object. The depth of the injury suggested that the perpetrator was enraged…”

Who cracked the victim’s skull and how? Who bludgeoned her and with what? Who or what made the perpetrator so angry? If I told you that on page one, what would be the point of reading the book?

From the detective character’s point of view – that point of view through which the writer wants the reader to see the scene – the answer is, “I don’t know.” And so, passive voice is quite appropriate. But the goal of a mystery is ultimately to find out, and put responsibility where it belongs. Before we’re done, the perpetrator – whoever he is – will have done something, and we will know why. We’ll know with what. And we will turn that passivity into action:

“Desperate to cover up his crimes, Michael Justice had beat Maryann senseless with a shovel. It infuriated him to think that this meek little woman could not only reject his advances – she could end him. He thought she was the only one who knew about the six other women buried beneath the rows of corn in his back yard, but he was wrong. Though the police had not taken the hysterical woman seriously, at first, her brutal murder demanded that they follow up on her tip. The killer’s trial was swift. Realizing that life in prison, the best he could hope for, amounted to the life of a caged animal, he chose not to appeal. As the clock ticked midnight, the coroner pronounced the prisoner dead. The state had executed Justice.”


For more examples, see Passive Voice: When to Use It and When to Avoid It. You might also find The Passive Voice is a Hoax! amusing. It makes a very valid point – similar to the one that could be made of lawyers, contracts, journal articles, and the use of obfuscating “legalese.”

HollyJahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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14 thoughts on “Passive Voice & Lazy Writing”

  1. Well actually, the song goes:
    “I shot the Sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy.”

    Mind you, Holly, has a wounded deputy and one or more other HOPEFULLY fictitious murders. My goodness. Things are getting violent in Texas. We might want to retreat to the Yellow Rose….

    (A song I have loved for 55 years. My sister claims that as a 3 yr old, I walked up the aisle of the church singing “Oh my Darling Clementine, and walked back singing Yellow Rose. I have always had good taste in music, you see.)

    I think we better call Charlotte Arrow, or Mrs Marple…. What happened to writing nice little books that kids and old ladies could read safely? Come Watson, the game is a foot. Or today, well, I guess it would be about 1/3 of a meter…

    But perhaps I inspired you. A senile murderer recalls his misspent youth ….as he dies in prison, finally illuminating all his past crimes to a spunky blonde crime reporter for the West Texas Daily Broadsheet and Internet Emporium….

    1. “Yes, Mr. Pedantic,” laughs the writer of eclectic assortments of stuff. “But ‘I did not shoot the Deputy’ is active voice, and would not have illustrated my point quite so well, would it?”

      Pete opens and closes his mouth; he is momentarily put at a loss for words. “Wouldn’t it have been better writing to say, ‘He is at a loss for words’? Besides, Ms. Disingenuous, we all know who put me there,” he ventures.

      “Yes, but that, too, would have been active voice and not nearly as illustrative.” The author considers and rejects several pithy adverbs before chucking a surprisingly angular, but soft, throw pillow at the heckler’s head.

      1. Hey, I just wanted the lyrics to work out.

        Me at a loss for words? Fascinating idea. Why, once, I did have a case of laryngitis. BRUTAL! I will spare you the agony. It was right out of the twilight zone. The PML’s voice was shot and useless!

        I could use a new pillow! Wore out, it did, but years, may did it serve. Sniff.

        I better leave, since the Author-esses, is a Trekkie. Me, I like them all, Except for the new BG. To me, only Lorne Greene can be Commander Adama.

  2. Knowing that I had not done my homework, my English teacher thought he would use my expected response of “it did not get done” to demonstrate the use of the passive voice as a way of deflecting blame.

    Because I had been paying attention in class, my actual response was “I did not do it”.I messed up his example, but my honesty saved me from serious and possibly, painful punishment.
    Peter Wright recently posted…Getting started, all in or gradual?My Profile

  3. Never have I been conscious whether I am using an active or passive voice except when I am writing an inter-office memorandum or a sales/solicitation letter where I learned from a seminar I attended that I should always use an active voice.
    Roy recently posted…I used to be a blogger.My Profile

    1. While I cannot think, offhand, of too many good examples of passive voice in business writing, I would be reluctant to say “always” or “never.” How about:

      The process has been changed, over the years, to include several important quality checks.

      It would probably be better just to say “The process now includes several important quality checks.” But if you’re giving the history of the process itself, it wouldn’t be wrong to use passive voice, since the changes have been progressive and the important thing is not who changed the process, but that it has evolved to include several quality checks. I would prefer the passive voice to the somewhat ludicrous notion that “The process has changed over the years…” as if by itself, of its own volition. (That’s nitpicky, since either would be clear enough to get the point across.)

      So – the seminar gave good advice, but if the perfect passive sentence should occur to you and you not be able to rewrite it without astonishing acts of mental contortion, just write it in the best, clearest way you can.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Let Go of the Dots!My Profile

  4. First of all, I would like to say thanks for sharing this great post and valuable tips. This is really helpful to me and I am thinking that why not to use these tips on my blog also. The best part of this post I like is you have shared your tips in different separate and individual points. Thanks once again for sharing this post.

    1. Lisa, I’m still baffled by your link. 🙂 But glad to know you’re you. And sorry I got sidetracked and didn’t finish responding here. Ever notice how, once you take the friendship to Facebook or email, the blog comments just go to cr*p? 😀

      Thank you. Every now and then, there’s a topic that just keeps popping up in different places: home, work, online – and that, alone, inspires a post. I figure it’s easier than repeating myself like a little old lady who’s forgotten she had the conversation two hours ago. Sometimes, I’m afraid I WILL forget the answers! (Ask Abhi Balani – some days, my conversations are nothing more than a series of links serving as shorthand for actual replies.) I’m always glad when people find them helpful and useful!
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…The My Profile

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