Verb Review #8: Passive Voice
The way some writing coaches slam Passive Voice, one might imagine that its use constitutes a grammatical error. It doesn’t.
In the context of grammar, Voice refers to the relation of the subject of a verb to the action of the verb. In English, there are two possibilities:
1. The subject performs the action.
2. The action is performed upon the subject.
A swarm of angry wasps attacked an unwary hiker.
This sentence is “in active voice” because the subject (wasps) performs the action (attacked).
An unwary hiker was attacked by a swarm of angry wasps.
This sentence is “in passive voice” because the subject (hiker) received the action of the verb (was attacked).
It is impossible to say which sentence is the better stylistic choice without knowing its place in a larger context.
The first sentence might be preferable in an article about the habits of insects, whereas the second sentence might be the better choice in an article offering advice to hikers.
Only transitive verbs (the ones that take an object) can be used in passive voice:
The boy hit the ball.
The verb (hit) is transitive because it has an object, ball. The sentence is in active voice because the subject (boy) performs the action.
The ball was hit by the boy.
The verb still belongs to the category of transitive verbs, but the sentence is in passive voice because the subject (ball) is the recipient of the action (was hit).
The usual way to express the passive voice is with a form of “to be” (is, are, am, was, were, being) and a past participle. For example:
The door was slammed by the boy.
The cantaloupe was eaten by racoons.
The baby was placed in protective custody.
Sometimes the “to be” verb will be accompanied by other auxiliary verbs, as in the combinations has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been.
The use of passive voice is a stylistic choice. Its overuse creates a stodgy tone, but it should not be regarded as a bane to be avoided at all costs. Passive voice is justified when a writer wishes to emphasize the receiver of an action rather than the doer.
The worst that can be said of passive voice is that it’s sometimes used deliberately to obscure meaning or avoid blame. High-ranking government officials, for example, are quite fond of passive voice as a means of distancing themselves and their colleagues from blame.
Political journalist William Schneider has labeled this blame-avoiding use of passive voice “the past exonerative tense.” The most frequent passive phrase used to avoid blaming anyone or anything for something that went wrong is “mistakes were made.” For example:
I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility.—Alberto R. Gonzales Attorney General 2007, RE: firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
Obviously, some mistakes were made.—John Sununu, White House Chief of Staff 1991, RE: violation of White House travel rules.
But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so.—Ronald Reagan, State of the Union address, 1987. RE: Iran-Contra.
Mistakes were made, and the proper protocols were not followed.”—Julia Pierson Former Secret Service Chief, 2014. RE: White House Security Breach.
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7 Responses to “Verb Review #8: Passive Voice”
“It is impossible to say which sentence is the better stylistic choice without knowing its place in a larger context. The first sentence might be preferable in an article about the habits of insects, whereas the second sentence might be the better choice in an article offering advice to hikers.”
I think you hit it on the nail, Maeve.
The one time I published a paper in a refereed journal, I tried to rebel against the tendency to use exclusively passive voice and other roundabout constructions in technical writing, e.g., “It has been found that” rather than “The author has found.” This was roundly nixed by the editorial committee. I was not allowed (in print) to have observed anything. All observations were made by by some unidentified entities who were never to be referred to directly.
Something clicked in my brain when I got to your mention of auxiliary verbs (had been, has been, etc). I have a sticky note on my monitor about the tenses of “sing,” and the note about “sung” is: “Use has, hasn’t, hadn’t, etc. with sung.”
Are rung, sung, hung, stunk and their ilk all generally restricted to passive voice? Offhand, I can only think of one exception: “He hung the picture on the wall,” and now I’m starting to wonder about that one.
Great question. I’ve been researching this very thing of late. One of my peeves is seeing one of these forms as a simple past (no helping verb), but I often see it done by writers I admire. For example, “He sung tenor with the choir.” Stay tuned.
“For example, ‘He sung tenor with the choir.’ ”
What the— who on Earth is writing something like that!? Heat up the tar, gather some feathers, I think there is a rail we can use in the back…
I have a college English textbook (c2000) that gives two past forms for “sing” and “sink” in a section for ESL speakers: sang/sung, sank/sunk. (I am not making this up.)
“I sung a song”. All calls for military action aside, why would they do that? Does any reputable or mainstream source on English accept sung as the regular past tense of sang? I can’t think why they would print such a thing. Is thunk in there too? I hope this isn’t another Merriamism.