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How to use the passive voice

Writing instructors and books often inveigh against the passive voice. My thrift-store copy of Strunk and White’s 1957 Elements of Style says “Use the Active Voice,” explaining that it is “more direct and vigorous than the passive.” And George Orwell, in his 1946 essay on “Politics and the English Language,” scolds us to “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”

The passive is an easy target but used strategically, it can be an important part of any writer’s repertoire. The passive allows writers to connect a sentence to the surrounding context putting the focus on the object of the action rather than the subject. Consider this excerpt from Jody Rosen’s paean to the Murphy bed in the September 2018 New York Times Magazine:

The Murphy bed offered a solution. Each morning, we wake up, pile pillows and blankets in the corner and push the bed up, where it slips into an upright frame so discreet that your eye slides right over it. Presto: The bedroom is transformed into a work space. At night, the contraption is flipped down again, the linen goes back on and we take advantage of a minor engineering marvel ….

The paragraph is about space in a cramped apartment. The second sentence deals with the bed’s disappearance, the third sentence with the bedroom’s transformation, and the fourth with the bed again (the “contraption”). To use the active voice takes the focus off the bed and disrupts the unity of the paragraph. Try replacing the third and fourth sentences with the active:

The Murphy bed offered a solution. Each morning, we wake up, pile pillows and blankets in the corner and push the bed up, where it slips into an upright frame so discreet that your eye slides right over it. Presto: we transform the bedroom into a work space. At night, we flip the contraption down again, put the linen back on and take advantage of a minor engineering marvel ….

The paragraph goes from being about the bed to being about the sleepers.

The passive also allows writers to introduce situation and explicate it. In Matthew Desmond’s September 2018 New York Times Magazine piece, “Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not,” we find the passive voice opening a paragraph:

American workers are being shut out of the profits they are helping to generate.

The remainder of that paragraph answers the complex question deferred by the passive verb. To rephrase the sentence in the active would give away the explanation and render it repetitive. It would be something like this:

The decline of unions, the imbalance of the economy, and the loss of good-paying jobs are shutting American workers out of the profits they help to generate.

The passive allows writers to connect a sentence to the surrounding context putting the focus on the object of the action rather than the subject.

Sometimes too the agent of a transitive verb is a noun of such length and complexity that it needs to be at the end of the sentence. Here is an example from Judith Thurman’s “The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages” in the September 3, 2018, New Yorker:

The word “hyperpolyglot” was coined two decades ago, by a British linguist, Richard Hudson, who was launching an Internet search for the world’s greatest language learner.

If you try to switch that to the active voice, the sentence becomes unbalanced and collapses in on itself.

Two decades ago, a British linguist, Richard Hudson, who was launching an Internet search for the world’s greatest language learner, coined the word “hyperpolyglot.”

Finally, the passive is often necessary for parallelism or consistency in a relative or coordinate clause. Here are two more examples, one from Judith Thurman again and one from Doug Brock Clark, writing in the Atlantic.

But, from a small sample of prodigies who have been tested by neurolinguists, responded to online surveys, or shared their experience in forums, a partial profile has emerged.

He estimated that hundreds of people were either trapped by the waters or remaining in place to protect their homes from looters.

Rewriting these as active is an exercise in awkwardness.

Many similar examples of elegant passives can be found. The passive voice is such a useful tool that we often don’t even notice when we are using it. That was probably the case with George Orwell, who explained that in clumsy writing “the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds.”

See what Orwell did there? He used the passive voice.

Featured image credit: Rocky Waters by Stuart Allen. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Peter B.

    Typo: first paragraph:
    “Element of Style” should be ‘Elements of Style’ (plural).

    Thank you for the informative article, an enjoyable read.

  2. Cassandra Ammerman

    Fixed, thank you!

  3. Sajjad Ansari

    Why do you tear my shirt?

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