The Simplified blog
Are sentences written in the passive voice really that bad?Frances Gordon | 04 May 2007 | 16:42
A section about ‘the active voice’ can be found in most writing courses (including our own).
From Strunk & White to the Plain English Campaign, the passive voice has been maligned, accused of concealing responsibilities, of manipulating the reader with small print. The passive voice is seen as nothing other than evil – wrong, wrong, wrong!
But is it? Are sentences written in the passive voice really that bad? (Or should I rather ask: Are sentences that people write in the passive voice really that bad?)
They are, when used for the express purpose to leave out important detail. ‘You will be refunded’, for example, is problematic, because in many cases, I would like to know who will refund me.
But they're not, when used to highlight what the writer feels to be important. Sometimes the passive voice can even signal a change of meaning.
This was one of the topics of conversation on the 1 May public holiday, when I was fortunate enough to be invited to lunch with a very well-respected lawyer and plain-language practitioner from Canada. We were chatting about the passive voice (nothing quite like taking a leisurely lunch to chat about the passive voice) – and discussed that it’s actually quite useful sometimes…
‘My daughter was hit by a car.’ Here the passive voice signals that what I’m concerned about is my daughter.
‘That dumb idiot went into my daughter’ has a completely different meaning – now, I’m concerned with dealing with the dumb idiot who ran over my unfortunate daughter.
So what does this mean?
Well, despite understanding the possible applications of passive, we still train people to avoid it. We still believe that, in business writing, it’s often used for the wrong reasons. But, when we train it, the reason for avoiding it is emphasised, so the rule is meaningful and not arbitrary prescriptivism.
By the way, MS Word says that a whopping 23% of this post is written in the passive. Oops, make that a bit higher…
All content © Simplified 2006/7 | Legal