Passive voice is a sentence construction in the English language that people can use without thinking but is also a tool that writers can use maliciously. Listed among George Orwell’s “swindles and perversions” of writing, it’s important to recognize when you use passive voice and consider if it’s the best choice for your sentence.
What Is Passive Voice?
English sentences usually follow a pattern, subject–verb–object, reflected in “Lauren ate the cookies.” Passive voice follows a different pattern, object–verb–subject, resulting in a sentence like “The cookies were eaten by Lauren.” This grammatical construction also allows for the subject, the one doing the action, to be dropped from the author’s sentence completely, becoming “The cookies were eaten.”
In English, the first words of a sentence carry more weight. In a passive construction, this means there’s more emphasis on the object of the sentence and a de-emphasis of the subject doing the action. The difference between the active and the passive sentences is stark, as the passive voice obscures or removes the connection between me, the subject, and my actions, eating the cookies.
One way to identify if a sentence uses passive voice is to look for forms of “to be” followed by a past participle. This can be “was used,” “is given,” “have been chosen,” “being named,” or many other similar combinations.
Please note that not every sentence that contains a form of “have” or “be” is passive; the sentences “Jennifer has a dog,” or “Colleen is an American,” are both active constructions. Additionally, there are grammatically active constructions that avoid using the subject in the sentence. For example, compared to “Lauren burnt the cookies,” “The cookies burned” uses an active voice while evading pointing to who caused this to happen.
What Issues Can Passive Voice Cause?
Back in May, the New York Times tweeted about an article they published covering the protests with these three sentences:
The internet erupted upon noticing that the protesters’ actions were described with an active voice while the police’s actions were passive. The tweet seems to avoid placing the onus of the journalists’ injuries on the police in the first and third sentences while placing the protesters in an active role in the second sentence.
Upon reading the article linked in the tweet, the sentences seem to be pulled directly from the article. The tweet was likely not intentionally disconnecting police from the violence they caused but highlights the importance of critically considering the use of passive voice.
However, I would recommend you don’t write off all uses of the passive voice as mistakes or unconscious choices. The ability to hide or even remove mention of the subject of a sentence is a powerful tool.
For example, “Management furloughed more women than men,” recognizes management as responsible for their decision. “More women were furloughed than men,” seemingly absolves individuals in management of their accountability, puts the focus on who the action is being done to and, especially in this case, makes the problem seem nebulous and unapproachable.
Active voice offers the subject the agency and responsibility for their actions. It’s often more truthful, better describes cause-and-effect situations and demonstrates a better understanding of the context.
When Can I Use Passive Voice?
There are still perfectly good times to use passive voice:
In this blog I used passive voice in a non-problematic way: “… the protesters’ actions were described with an active voice…” I used passive voice because I didn’t know who crafted that tweet and didn’t want to pretend that I did.
To improve your writing and your critical media consumption skills, learn to recognize and consider the use of passive voice. Be aware of the issues that passive voice can cause. When you’re writing, ask yourself why you’re using this style and if passive voice is interfering with your sentence’s ability to be clear and truthful. When in doubt, rewrite your sentence so no one must ask, “Who did this?”Tags: capturing voice and style through writing, critical media, Critical Thinking, English, grammar, how to improve your writing, media criticism, passive voice, sentence construction, subject, Writing skills, writing tips, writing tool