Divine Passive Voice
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.
Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips and get a free eBook!
- Our weekly newsletter is free (one email per week, on Tuesdays)
- You will improve your English, guaranteed.
- Get our "100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid" eBook free.