Writing at Work    

The Passive Impasse
















There may be more confusion and misunderstanding about the passive voice than any other facet of writing or grammar. One reason is that passive voice and passive tense are interchangeable terms, so many mistakenly equate the passive tense with the past tense. Some sticklers deem the passive evil, never to be tolerated. In Strunk and White's Elements of Style, the view is somewhat balanced. The active voice is best suited for the goals of clarify, conciseness, lively writing. "This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary."

The opposite misconception abounds in technical and academic writing, where the more prevalent perception is that the passive is entirely necessary. Much of this is due to confusing passives with a preference to avoid the first person. We like the similarly balanced advice the American Chemical Society offers in its style guide: ""Use the active voice when it is less wordy and more direct than the passive" and "Use the first person when it helps to keep your meaning clear and to express a purpose or decision." (emphases added)

Finally, like programming a new electronic device, knowing how to handle the distinction between actives and passives is either intuitive or frustrating beyond limits; and each reaction is equally natural. This dual response never goes away-no matter who the writer. So if you fall into the frustrating category, we suggest following up with several grammar books recommended in the "Why Grammar Matters" essay. Then practice, practice, practice.

To determine the character of passives depending on the context and purpose, click on the links below for an example and explanation.

Advantages Disadvantages
Effective when the writer cannot identify the doer-who or what does the action-or cannot attribute responsibility or thinks it necessary. Obscures the party taking action or responsibility. It is often vague, imprecise, misleading.
Softens negatives by eliminating the doer of the action or placing it at the end of the sentence. Tends to be wordy. When repeatedly used, passives bog down the reading and weaken the overall development.
Emphasizes the "object" when it is more important that the doer. Diminishes the doer when it is important to emphasize it.
Appeases false notion that passive is synonymous with objective and impartial tone. Can create a pompous, impersonal and bureaucratic tone.

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