ASK DOCTOR DOROTHY PASTENSE FULLSTOP:

So why do some people get upset about the passive voice?

Actually, it's quite a good question. The passive voice is firmly established in the unofficial rulebook of English grammar. By the way, there are no official English grammar rulebooks guys, okay? There are English language grammar guides, but there aren't any English grammar books with set English grammar rules as dictated by some authority set up to specifically deal with that sort of thing, and tell us to do it.


Anyway, rant over; that's not to say that there were many who did get uptight about the passive. Microsoft’s Word program famously used to put green squiggles under sentences written in the passive which, when clicked, advised us to reconsider the sentence. Americans William Strunk and E.B. White (yes, the E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web fame), authors of the highly regarded (and with love and awe) The Element of Style (published in 1918), made it clear they were actively against its usage. UK journalist Simon Heffer, author of Strictly English: the correct way to write… and why it matters (a book that has been acclaimed by many media publications but completely dismissed by English language experts such as David Crystal and Steven Pinker) states that '...we should avoid passives', whilst later writing in his opening paragraph ‘…the passive voice of a transitive verb is used’. Then we have Michael Gove.

So who is Michael Gove? Well, he’s a British politician in the current government. But back in 2013, when he complained about the standard of English being used in his department in the form of memos, he came up with a set of rules called ‘Gove’s Golden Rules’ about the use of written English.

He particularly made it clear that he hated the use of the passive voice, although he actually makes TWO mistakes on the subject in a memo to his government department. He writes: ‘…Use the active, not the passive voice’. He gives an example: 'Ministers have decided to increase spending on the poorest children', presumably to point out that by writing this, it raises the question ‘which ministers?’. The only thing is, the sentence is in the active. He’s just simply used the present perfect, not the passive. At the beginning of his memo, he then writes: ‘Thank you for your letter of the 17th asking me, on behalf of your colleagues, how I like letters to be drafted.’ . The final clause of that sentence is in the passive: ‘…how I like letters to be drafted’. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what he wrote there – he has actually made a clear point. Now if he’d written it in the active, we would have ended up with ‘How I like to draft letters’ or ‘How I would like you to draft letters’. Grammatically nothing wrong, but it's not good register for the reader intended (i.e. formal), and cannot be expressed as clearly or coherently as the passive. 

 

Anyway, I thought, it’s time to do some research. I was looking forward to discovering a lot of journalistic advice on the topic, but I could only find three clear cut answers. They all pretty much agree, but two of them kept it brief: ‘Active verbs are much more effective [than the passive], especially in headlines: compare “my hamster was eaten by Freddie Starr” with “Freddie Starr ate my hamster”’* (The Guardian). ‘Active, not passive. Be direct. A hit B describes the event more concisely than B was hit by A.’ (The Economist).

 

The third source was the BBC. Now in their case they gave what I thought was a pretty good balance on the topic, while at the same time getting to the root of the problem. It offers a simple explanation of the difference between the active and the passive. Active voice: A does B. Passive voice: B is done (usually by A). It then offers us some examples of how the active gives more impact, but then it adds that the passive can be better, as it allows the focus of the story to be placed at the beginning to give more impact, for example: A government minister praised the efforts of TEE for pointing out the errors in the English text (active); TEE was praised by a government minister for pointing out the errors in the English text (passive).

 

Now here’s where the basis of Michael Gove’s complaints have some validity. The passive voice, says the article, ‘…acts as a kind of safety net… Governments, politicians and officials of all kinds love the passive because individual actions are buried beneath a cloak of collective responsibility.’ Gove has identified the problem: unfortunately, he hasn’t expressed himself very well about it. Okay, what he’s saying is that he wants his memos to be clear and concise, but to avoid any vocabulary that suggests ‘weaseling’, or more accurately, the use of weasel words. 

 

What does that mean? Well, let me refer to Not4GrammarBores for an explanation: ‘Weasel words (or more boringly, an anonymous authority) are words, phrases or remarks that are deliberately ambiguous or misleading. They create some kind of idea that something specific or meaningful has been expressed, but in reality it is only vague and could be interpreted in more than one way.’ It even uses examples of the passive to highlight the problem: ‘They say 'mistakes were made' instead of 'we made mistakes' - and uses phrases such as 'in the circumstances it was considered', 'it will be recognised that' and 'it was felt necessary that...'

By using the passive, the source is removed and the life extracted from the action. If things go well: ‘We took appropriate action and identified the problem’, using the active. But if it goes wrong, the speaker becomes defensive and switches to the passive: 'It was considered to be the right course of action.’

The passive can also be overused, particularly with corporate material. Text becomes horribly… well, pretentious and stuffy. Using lovely big words that nobody understands may make them seem terribly important, but throw the passive in and, well, look at this example: In the event of additional time being required over and above that which has been allocated for the conference room, this should be done with immediate effect. Three passive verbs. Okay, it’s for your attention, but you should be mentioned: If you need additional time for the conference room, please contact Brenda Smith. Shorter and to the point, and not the least pretentious. Is this the kind of thing you’re after, Mr. Gove? 

But the passive can be good. As mentioned earlier, the passive allows us to leave out the agent (or the person responsible, perhaps the kind of people Mr. Gove hates). But what it does do is that it allows us to talk about things if we don’t know who the agent is (or they’re obvious, irrelevant, or some reason, shouldn’t be mentioned): Wine is made in France (or would you rather say they make wine in France?) Trespassers will be prosecuted. The order has not been processed. Or how about Last week I was not only told I was sacked, but in addition, and in front of my colleagues, I was humiliated, embarrassed and escorted out of the building. Could you rewrite that last sentence in the active?  

So the passive can be useful, but if you’re writing some form of paper that requires you to cite your sources, then unless it truly improves the flow of your writing or helps to express a point more concisely without overusing the agent, it may be necessary to avoid. Unless you want your text to be overformal and pretentious.

*'Freddie Starr ate my hamster' was a real newspaper quotation. Click here for the story.

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