Active voice tells us the subject is doing the action (The dog chased the cat). Passive voice tells us that the subject is having the action done to it (The cat was chased by the dog). Easy enough to understand in theory, but confusing and frowned upon nonetheless. The problem with passive voice is that it’s clunky, vague, ineffective and sounds as awkward and baffling as stream water flowing backwards up a mountain. These things are true a lot of the time, and yes active is mostly preferable to passive. Yet, here I am saying that sometimes passive voice is better.
1. Retain the subject’s importance
The dog chased the cat | The cat was chased by the dog. As you can see, the cat and the dog have switched roles in this story with the change of voice, which demonstrates one of the ways passive voice can be used effectively. In the passive example, the cat has been promoted to subject status. The focus has moved from the dog to the cat. Basically, the cat’s the star of the show.
My dog was stung by a bee. Then, when running home to safety, he was hit by a car. This (fictional) story is about my dog. My dog is the focus, the subject. He’s the important factor here. This is about him and what happened to him. Change it to A bee stung my dog. Then, as he was running home to safety, a car hit him and you change the focus of the sentence. It becomes more about the events–the verbs–than it does about the sympathy my dog deserves. If I were trying to evoke sympathy for my dog, the passive construction would better communicate this.
2. Remove unnecessary words
On a different note, passive voice can also make your writing more concise, strangely enough, by removing unnecessary words, i.e. agents that aren’t required to get the message across or are unimportant.
John Doe was hit by a car and then rushed to hospital. John Doe and what happened to him is the focus of this sentence, not the thing that hit him. Additionally, it isn’t important how he got to a hospital, only that he’s there. This passive construction is much more effective than A car hit John Doe and then an ambulance rushed him to hospital , which sounds as awkward as passive sounds when active should be used. It isn’t vague like passive can be, but it isn’t concise, either. Another example is John Doe was charged with the murder of his wife, Jane, which sounds much simpler than Police charged John Doe with the murder of his wife, Jane or even Sergeant Jim Roe charged John Doe with the murder of his wife, Jane, where it isn’t clear whose wife Jane is.
3. Avoid lengthier constructions when the agent is unknown
The last paragraph demonstrated examples of agents deliberately being omitted, a method also used by businesses and the government for a variety of reasons (The product was shipped last week | Measures have been taken to ensure this will not happen again | The report has been submitted, etc.), but passive voice can also be used when the agent is unknown, e.g. Help, I‘ve been kidnapped!. In this example, we can assume that the victim has no idea who’s kidnapped them. Help, someone kidnapped me! also works, but has less urgency as the focus is spread over the kidnapper and the victim, rather than just the victim.
Passive voice is not the devil and I think we generally have a natural knack for how and when to use it, even if we don’t all understand quite how to identify it. Yes, active voice is preferred, but passive voice is still a crucial aspect of our language if we know how to use it.
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