Divine Passive Voice

By Jacquelyn Landis

Most writers know the difference between active and passive voice. In active voice, there’s a clearly identified agent performing an action:

Tiger Woods made a hole in one.

The subject of this sentence, Tiger Woods, is the agent who is performing the action: making a hole in one. In passive voice, the subject isn’t performing the action; it’s being acted upon by the agent:

A hole in one was made by Tiger Woods.

Most experts agree that active voice is preferable over passive voice wherever possible, and most writers know this. However, did you know that there’s another form of passive voice? This one is called divine passive voice. In a sentence using divine passive voice, no agent of action is ever identified:

A hole in one was made.

Since there’s no agent, the action in the sentence is considered an act of God—thus, divine passive voice. Granted, this is a tongue-in-cheek assessment because it’s pretty unlikely that the hole in one happened all by itself even though Tiger Woods is sometimes attributed with divinely inspired talent.

Divine passive voice is most useful for obscuring information. Perhaps Tiger didn’t want to buy the customary round of drinks in the clubhouse to celebrate his hole in one, so he insisted that club officials keep his identity secret.

Politicians and other bureaucrats are fond of divine passive voice. It appears to give complete information, and it sounds official, thereby duping readers:

Mistakes were made. (Who, exactly, made the mistakes?)

Gas prices were raised. (By whom?)

Unless you’re deliberately trying to avoid assigning blame or you’re intentionally trying to be vague, steer clear of divine passive voice.

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5 Responses to “Divine Passive Voice”

  • Hal Brown

    I just wrote a post about this, not yet published. This is bound to happen once in a while.

    This is a good succinct explanation of active/passive voice. Thank you.

  • Rod

    I think that using a subject at the end of every passive voice sentence is absurd, you don’t say I was born by my mother that’s lame you say when or where, so imagine sentences like: That sandwich will be eaten by me, not every active voice sentence is likely to be changed to passive form you should only include the doer If it’s really significant like scissors were invented by Da Vinci
    passive voice is useful for a report that doesn’t need a subject e.g.
    Be careful don’t lean against the wall you’re gonna get your clothes stained, it was just painted. If you don’t say by the painters you won’t be “obscuring” info. And when the prices are raised God only knows by whom.

  • thebluebird11

    LOL The medical field is notorious for that “divine passive voice” thing so that explains why doctors think they are gods! Even native English speakers use that construction when they are dictating reports (they would never speak that way in normal conversation), “The patient was examined by me.” Who says that?! “Decision was made to…” (instead of “I decided to…”) “Cleansing of the wound was done…” (instead of “I cleaned the wound…”) So stupid. They/we really don’t speak that way amongst each other, so I am not sure why they feel that in dictated reports they have to do this switcheroo with the wording; it doesn’t make it more formal, it just makes it vague and stupid, and sounds as if they are hedging, trying to cover their asses in case of a future lawsuit. Yes, we dislike attorneys. If not for them, I think we would not hesitate to make clear statements, because as it stands, we have to worry that every word out of our mouths will be twisted into a multi-million-dollar “pain and suffering” lawsuit. So…gosh, I don’t know WHO did that examination or wound cleaning…it was just “done.” By…God?

  • Justin

    Two above comments bring up a pair of situations where I would consider the divine passive appropriate. Notably, in technical and scientific writing the passive voice is a rather well-established custom as the actor is relatively unimportant compared to the action. Similarly, there are places where the intent of a sentence is not to obscure information but to ignore obvious information. “I was born in New York City”, does technically lack an actor, but the implicit actor is fairly obvious. If you were born in some other fashion than via your mother then I would imagine you might want to call attention to that fact.

    Both of these examples demonstrate responsible use of actorless passive voice because they do not effectively obscure their actors, instead focusing on more important information.

  • George

    I don’t get passive voice….what is it?!!?!

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