Grammar Gripes 3- Ermahgerd! Passive Voice is teh Evil!

Passive voice is bad, m’kay? Writers see various forms of that sentence everywhere they look. Passive voice is non-dynamic, boring, and wordy. No one should use it, ever. Even my Word program is now tweaked so that it will tell you when you use passive voice so that you can immediately change that vapid sentence before it embarrasses you.

Passive voice is, in short, the current grammar bugaboo that everyone warns you to avoid like the plague. Except that you shouldn’t.

First let’s explore the difference between passive and active voice, with an example that shows when passive voice is not a good idea. Passive voice is often denoted by use of the auxiliary verb “be” and sometimes “get.”

The diploma was received by a fourteen year old girl.
Very passive. In the above sentence, “the diploma” becomes the important thing when “a fourteen year old girl” should be far more important. People get diplomas all the time, but fourteen year olds do not.

A fourteen year old girl received her diploma.
The girl is now important. “Received” is a far more interesting verb that “was,” which is a conjugation of “be.” You can see why forms of “be” are sometimes called “auxiliary.” The far more interesting verb is “received” in the sample sentence. “Was” is not even needed when you rewrite the sentence to be more active.

There! You see? That first sentence is deplorable. No wonder passive voice should never be used!

The patient was murdered by a nurse who was responsible for his care.
My Word program is calling that passive all over the place. Look! I used “was” twice! Double the passive, double the horror! (I seem to be very excited by my passive voice. Never have I used so many exclamation points.)

You see, gentle reader, that sometimes the passive voice is not only all right to use, but preferable. In the above sentence, the important thing becomes the patient, rather than the nurse. “The patient was murdered by a nurse” has more emotional impact than “A nurse murdered a patient.” Murdered seems more important, despite the fact that it has an auxiliary verb introducing it.

Passive voice is dead useful when the object is unknown or mysterious. Police reports, as well as mystery and thriller writers, would not get very far without the passive voice.

At 3 pm in the afternoon, a bank was robbed. (We don’t know who robbed the bank.)
The body was lying in a pool of blood. (Blood pooled around the body that was lying there?)
It was clear by the difficulty of the long distance shot that the gunman was a skilled marksman.

Politicians also couldn’t get far without passive voice. Ronald Regan’s famous quote, “Mistakes were made” neatly side-stepped admitting who made the mistakes. “The information was faulty” also refuses to tell us who gave us such bad info, and keeps them from blame.

The last thing I will note is that not all sentences that use a form of the verb “be” are passive. It is widely known that the book much used by writer’s everywhere, The Elements of Style, gives four examples of passive voice, three of which are incorrect.
“There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.”
“It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had.”
“The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.”

“The reason was his health.” Not passive. There’s no better way to write the sentence while using the word “reason.” Certainly one could say “His poor health demanded that he leave college,” but a sentence such as that is not always useful. What’s the reason? The reason was that his health became impaired.

In closing, while using active voice is important to keep one’s readers interested, don’t freak out if your Word program points out the odd passive phrase. Sometimes passive voice sentences are desirable, and sometimes that Word program is simply wrong.

As always, I am not a grammar queen. There may be errors in this very post!

Detail, Louisville Water Tower

Detail, Louisville Water Tower

About JulianneQJohnson

I am a writer in Indiana who lives with two cats, two ferrets, and one fiance. I enjoy cheap coffee and expensive chocolate.
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2 Responses to Grammar Gripes 3- Ermahgerd! Passive Voice is teh Evil!

  1. l. says:

    The body was lying in a pool of blood. (Blood pooled around the body that was lying there?)

    This is not a passive voice construction, just past continuous 🙂

    “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.” – as I understand it, this is a passive voice clause, the second part of the sentence is passive – his health became impaired, it just uses “became” instead of “was”.

    Passive voice constructions are also stylistically preferable when they help to avoid changing the grammatical subject, afaik 🙂 “She made a mistake and they fired her as a result” => “She made a mistake and was fired as a result.”

    • Makes sense. Not being a grammar queen, I assumed that I would get some of my examples off of the top of my head wrong. The sad thing about the filter on Word is that it will slam anything with the word “was” in it as passive. That’s why I ignore it 100% of the time.

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