Monthly Archives: July 2018

What Every Writer Should Know About The Passive

I feel a rant coming on. It starts in the solar plexus, migrates to the gullet, and zooms north to splurge over the keyboard. What has spawned today’s rant is the stream of ill-considered advice to writers about avoiding the passive voice. But let’s begin at the beginning and be clear what a passive sentence looks like.

ACTIVE: The dog bit the lady.

PASSIVE: The lady was bitten by the dog.

If you write, as I do, using Microsoft Word, you will find a squiggly green line under the whole of the second sentence. Why? Because received ignorance (not received wisdom) has decreed that use of the passive is to be avoided. (See what I did there?) The squiggly green line is telling you to reformulate your sentence. Note that the squiggly line does not distinguish between different types of passive sentence; it underlines them all.

Ask anyone who advocates avoiding the passive why they hold that view and you normally get one of three answers:

  1. It’s too long – better to keep things short.
  2. It’s confusing and complicated.
  3. Famous author X says it’s not good.

(For “Famous author”, you can often substitute, “My Creative Writing tutor”.)

Lets take these one by one.

  1. It’s too long.

In sentences where the agent – the doer of the action – is not mentioned, the passive is the same length as the active:

ACTIVE: Someone has stolen my car. (5 words)

PASSIVE: My car has been stolen. (5 words)

Does anyone really prefer the personalised, “Someone” version? Those readers blessed with more than three brain cells can guess that the perpetrator was a person rather than a marauding marsupial. Of the three elements car, someone and stolen, someone is the least important. The passive is the natural, logical choice here.

[Note for nerds: a passive verb is always one word longer than its active equivalent: broke, was broken; has eaten, has been eaten; will congratulate, will be congratulated. There are no exceptions to this – a rarity in English Grammar.]

In sentences where the agent is mentioned, the passive sentence (not the verb) is two words longer than the active:

ACTIVE: Fleming discovered penicillin. (3 words)

PASSIVE: Penicillin was discovered by Fleming. (5 words)

Yes, the passive sentence is longer, but if the article is not about Alexander Fleming but about drugs in general or penicillin in particular, it may be more logical to formulate it in the passive.

The argument about the passive being “too long” has greatest relevance only when word count is vitally important, e.g. if you are entering a flash fiction competition with a maximum word limit of 100 or 200.

 

  1. It’s confusing and complicated.

 

I scratch my head when people label it “confusing”. What’s confusing about it? All you’re doing is starting a sentence with the recipient of an action rather than the agent. We’ve been hearing sentences like that all our lives.

As for it being complicated, this is only true in the unlikely event of someone choosing to passivise a sentence with a particularly long verb:

ACTIVE: The men have been cutting the hedge for three hours now.

PASSIVE: The hedge has been being cut for three hours now.

The passive sentence here is undeniably clumsy; that’s why we avoid it. The combinations be being and been being are aesthetically unacceptable to us. If a sentence requiring such a tense looms on the horizon of our conversations, our brains switch to automatic pilot and we make sure the sentence comes out in the active. Great. We don’t even have to think about it. So it is with our writing.

 

  1. Famous author X says it’s not good.

Ah, there we have it: the Cult of Celebrity rears its head once more. If author X says it, it must be true. Lecturers who admire author X take it on board and repeat it to their students. Students of writing repeat it to other students. The multiplier effect is, indeed, a powerful one.

Isn’t it possible to enjoy and respect author X without agreeing with everything (s)he says? Even the brightest brains don’t get it right all the time.

 

When to use the passive:

  • to depersonalise events;
  • when the recipient or result of an action is more important than the agent;
  • to focus attention on the person receiving/suffering an action (interviewees, crime suspects, medical patients, etc.)

The mixture was poured into a test tube and heated to 67°C.

(We’re not interested in who did the pouring; we want to know what happened to the mixture.)

 

The A1 between Stamford and Grantham has been resurfaced.

(We don’t care whether Roads-Я-Us or Monty’s Motorway Men did it. We just need to know that driving will be easier there now.)

 

The suspect was held in custody for three hours, questioned, and released without charge. (Focus on the suspect)

The wound was bandaged and she was given a blood transfusion. (Focus on the patient and the wound)

 

Celebrities, bless their cotton socks, wield more power than is good for them or us. Unthinking propagation of unsound advice does nothing to improve our writing skills, and blanket dismissal of any writing tool tells you more about the dismisser than about the tool. Sadly, if word spreads  that “Use of The Passive is Bad”, then its use inevitably becomes unfashionable. I even read recently in the instructions for one otherwise respectable writing competition: “Avoid use of the passive.” Dear oh dear. If you can seriously advocate that, then I’ll find other competitions to enter.

Overuse of the passive is bad. Clumsy use of the passive is bad. Astute use of the passive is good and enriches your writing.