In praise of the passive voice

Of all the technical advice I offer writers, none is more controversial than encouragement to use the passive voice. Most writers prefer the active, and so do I. But that preference has been distorted to the point of making the passive a taboo, expressed in useless phrases such as “avoid the passive,” or “there is no excuse for the passive,” or, with more humor, “the passive voice should not be used.”

  1. Criticism of the passive includes these arguments:
    It makes a sentence longer, requiring the addition of a helping verb.
  2. It is too indirect, violating the one-two-three progression of subject, verb, object, as in “Putin split his pants.” (Hard to imagine a writer preferring “Putin’s pants were split by him.”
  3. It allows the writer to avoid attribution of action, creating all kinds of evasion, especially in the political sphere, the classic example being “Mistakes were made.”

In “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch,” a book devoted to verbs, Constance Hale notes that confusion springs from the word “voice” to describe the relationship between subject and verb. More confusion comes from mischaracterizations. In a popular and otherwise helpful book, “On Writing,” the prolific Stephen King refers to the “passive tense,” a mistake since active and passive can be expressed in any sequence of time. (Passive and tense could be used to describe any number of King protagonists waiting for some horror to beset them.)

I argue that the passive has its uses and that writers should learn them, a position shared by Connie Hale in this New York Times essay.

But before I describe those uses, it will help first to overturn the conviction of the passive as “dull,” using DNA evidence of a textual nature. The standard critic argues that passive verbs are “weak,” “flabby,” or “soft.” The favored active verbs are then said to be “strong,” “vivid,” or “muscular.” It makes sense that, by definition, the active should usurp the passive, in the sense that we prefer the active student, soccer player, or lover to the passive.

Let me offer, as exhibit A, a phrase written by the Alabama author Daphne Simpkins in her essay “Two Clocks.” The piece describes the not-always-happy burden of escorting an elderly neighbor to doctor appointments, including a 40-mile trek to the foot doctor, where the woman’s “bunions are peeled and the toenails sawed off….” Many years ago, Daphne was a student of mine and probably heard my preference for the active. Now she is teaching me a lesson: that the passive can be vivid – to the boundary of yuck, as in “peeled” and “sawed off.”

That’s when it hit me like a pool cue to the solar plexus. The passive can be vivid, and the active dull, as in the sentence “Travis went downstairs,” as opposed to “fell” or “tripped” or “tumbled.”

This led me to an insight that may be ancient, but that is new to me: verbs are not active or passive at all. The activity or passivity rests in the subject, not the verb. When Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey complained that “I was blindsided” by the bridge scandal, it portrayed him as the passive receiver of the malpractice of others. That is exactly when the passive is most useful.

I often teach a passage from the journalist Thomas French, who wrote the story of an aging chimp named Herman, a charismatic creature who died violently at a Tampa zoo. We learn that as an infant, Herman “was taken from his mother…then sold in an orange crate for $25 and a thumbprint. He was carried across an ocean, installed inside a cage, taught to depend on the imperfect love of strangers.” These verbs (my italics) are vivid enough: taken, sold, carried, installed, taught. They describe Herman as an orphan, a captive, a victim. He is passive, not the verbs.

When Herman grows to become an alpha chimp, the virtual king of his zoo, his status changes, and so do the author’s verbs: “He charmed Jane Goodall, threw dirt at the mayor of Tampa, learned to blow kisses and smoke cigarettes, whatever it took to entertain the masses.” Herman is no longer the pauper, but a prince. He is the agent, the doer, the active one.

In those adjoining examples we see a lesson for all writers. Prefer the active, if you will, but when you want to focus on the receiver, the victim – be it bunion or chimp – the passive rules. There, I said it. In the active voice.

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  • Kevin Jebens

    I’m all for passive voice when it’s used with intent and for flow. Unfortunately, many of the self-publishing authors for whom I edit overuse it and create too many unclear phrases, muddying who is doing what.

  • Stéphane Kapitaniuk

    Good stuff!

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  • JTFloore

    in this case, to me it is simply more appropriate and accurate — and sounds better — to keep the aspiring big league shortstop’s ambition in the present and not relegate it to some time in the past. I, of course, did not say this is the “worst thing about newspaper writing.” but I think such writing would be improved if reporters and editors paid a little more attention to verb tense rather than let virtually everything be reported in the past tense.

  • Benjamin Lukoff

    Strunk and White? I don’t even want to know.

    I honestly don’t think anyone reading “he wanted” would assume that he no longer wants. If there is a case where this could cause ambiguity, that would be one thing. But how often does that really happen?

    Anyway, this is far from the worst thing about newspaper writing.

  • JTFloore

    yes, I know who THE honus wagner is, but maybe there was a lad who’s father admired the legendary baseball player and named his son after him.
    anyway, my complaint is simple, and i said nothing about using the past tense is “ungrammatical.” my complaint is this:
    little honus went to the game yesterday because he wants to be a baseball player. then presumably today he STILL wants to be a baseball player. thus, it’s incorrect to put his ambitions in the past tense. if we use the past tense and say he “wanted to become a baseball player,” then we’re basically saying that sometime between yesterday and today he changed his mind and no longer wants to be a baseball player. but there’s no reason to think he changed his mind and NOW wants to be a, say, fireman. (maybe the ball park caught on fire and he decided putting out firs was more exciting that catching ground balls.)
    so I think my example stands: “little honus went [past tense] to the baseball game yesterday because he wants [present tense] to be a baseball player.”
    read just about any newspaper story and you will readily see repeated examples where the past tense is used excessively in some way and that often the present tense would be more appropriate.
    that is my argument. I rest my case.
    (what would james jackson kilpatrick say? or strunk & white for that matter?)

  • Benjamin Lukoff

    Honus Wagner lived 100 years ago. Anyway, the point is that “he wanted” in such a context is not ungrammatical. It’s perfectly standard usage.

  • JTFloore

    if honus is a kid and went to the game yesterday, yes, it sounds right to me. there are many, many other such examples no one would dispute, but you can find them yourself. glaring examples are in virtually every story in every newspaper. EVERYTHING is not past tense, but if you read news stories, you would think they should be when, in fact, they should not be.

  • Benjamin Lukoff

    Effective usage should always trump pedantry.

  • Benjamin Lukoff

    No, they’re not wrong.

    “Honus Wagner went to the game because he wants to be a baseball player.”

    Does that really sound right to you?

  • JTFloore

    my gripe in newspaper writing is with tense. past tense is often used when present tense should be. i.e.:

    he went to the game because he wanted to be a baseball player.

    in this case “wanted” should be “wants.” examples like this abound in newspaper writing. they are everywhere. and they are wrong.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    I admire your tolerance for ideas that may go against the grain, BruceTheBlog.

  • BruceTheBlog

    Excellent piece, Mr. Clark. I plead guilty to being among those who can wax anal about rules of grammar and journalism. You make a compelling case for effective usage trumping abstract pedantry.