Why should I avoid the passive voice?
By: Mubarak Abdessalami
Many teachers are not resolute vis-à-vis the question of using the passive voice in writing. Most of them even avoid mentioning the passive voice style while teaching writing. This is either because they regard it as a minor issue and argue that there are other focal things in writing which disserve much more concentration, or because they wouldn't like their students to be 'politicians' for the reason that politicians are said to be known for the excessive use of this dead style.
Still, there are teachers who advise their students to avoid using the passive voice while writing because they deem it is redundant and bulk. Nonetheless, they keep silent about the "why not?" To my mind, they would at least let them know that this self-imposing style on the students is confusing and message breaking down when the reader cannot decide who did what?! It brings about ambiguity and misunderstanding.
Active Vs Passive Voices
Now, let's verify to what extent the advice is worth taking. I actually don't contest that the passive voice is sometimes indigestible being a heavy and information hiding style; yet I am objecting on the over-generalization only. The problem lies in the fact that the passive voice is very often irreplaceable. If our students believed, this way, that the passive voice in writing is a fatal misuse of the language, they would try to wipe it out; which is not quite a wise initiative for the fruitfulness, the imaginativeness and the flexibility of the language styles.
It is true that all verbs are normally active and they should always be so. When the sentence is active, it is the subject which performs the action; whereas in the passive sentence, the subject receives the action and this creates some bewilderment for the readers as they miss important information, notably the agent who did the action:
- The cat ate my sandwich. (Active)
- Here the subject is the doer or the agent "the cat". It is the cat thus who performs the action of eating. The sentence is active and lively and more informative. There is no ambiguity and the reader won't be wondering who did what?!
On the contrary,
- My sandwich was eaten by the cat. (Passive)
- With this sentence we prefer to focus on the fact that the sandwich was eaten and the doer is of a secondary role in our attitude towards the situation. Here the doer is not so important to talk about initially why then mention it. This is to be avoided, sure. It is the sandwich in this sentence which is the subject but it is not the doer. It doesn't perform the action. It rather receives it. And here is all the most disturbing point about this discrepancy and the weakness of the passive voice as clear meaning bearer.
This sentence is really awkward and less inspiring because the doer is there but it is not given the right function or place in the utterance. "My sandwich was eaten" is far more expressive no matter who did that. With this sentence I mean to show that I am not interested in who ate my sandwich. On the contrary my focus goes on the fact that it was eaten no matter who did it.
The mentioning of the doer in a passive sentence is not recommended only but in some very few special cases such as "Electricity was discovered by Edison" otherwise the statement looks too wordy and dead as an informative. This is therefore what I want the teachers to explain to the students so as not to be suspicious about the ability of the nice problem solving rich passive voice to create and highlight meaning.
If the doer is known, it is recommended to use the active voice. "X did Y". But suppose the "X" is unknown, unidentified or irrelevant i.e. not worth mentioning. In this case the most fitting style however is the passive voice, "Y was done" by the "X" which I cannot name for one of the previously mentioned reasons. Therefore, if "the cat" was surely the doer, it would be required to use the active form. However, if the doer is unknown to me (like someone, people etc) or all that matters for me is the fact that my sandwich was eaten no matter who did the action, it would be suitable and wise to use the passive voice but without "by the cat".
I'd like to make it graspable from this point that we should always be equitable in our approaches. Both active and passive voices are tools to express ideas the clearest and the easiest way. So let's start with the toughest question ever:
- Why should I avoid the passive voice?
- Why should the passive voice be avoided? (By all of us)
First we must decide which passive voice we are talking about. There are cases in which using the passive voice is inappropriate and almost dim. I mean the cases in which the agent is there, effective, relevant and has to be mentioned:
- Maria's skin damage is being examined by a professional aesthetician.*
- A professional aesthetician is examining Maria's skin damage.
In cases as such the passive voice would be worse as a style choice. It would look wordy, rambling and redundant. Look at example one, it is almost ridiculous. The second sentence, however, is more authentic and natural. This is perfectly what works well and this is what I am trying to say. Using the passive voice should be used in writing but appropriately. There are situations in which only the passive voice is the master.
In the first sentence the speaker didn't mention the doer so as to avoid troubles by intentionally avoiding talking about the responsible for the sabotage. Opposing to this, the second sentence speaks plainly about the actor behind the sabotage. All in all passive voice statements do not naturally lead to untrustworthiness or hiding information, but it is much more difficult, when you use the active voice, to avoid mentioning the doer.
- Many of our projects have been sabotaged.
- The manager has sabotaged many of our projects.
Politicians are known for their excessive use of the passive voice and there surely is a reason for that. Perhaps they want to hide some information or just they want to be less explicit. But this doesn't mean if they used the active voice, they wouldn't be real politicians or they'd be more explicit. This is totally relative if not wrong.
The passive voice is not the only style which can hide, more than clearly display, important information. The active voice can do better.
STUDY THESE STATEMENTS:
- "We were told by some reliable people that water in this region is not contaminated". *
- "It was proven by our laboratories' reports that water in this region is clean". *
- "Water in this region is said to be the purest in the country". *
As you may notice; these statements are wordy which proves that sometimes, the passive voice use is pure mockery and a waste of time, effort and information. Since we are talking about water as a vital substance why not name precisely who told, who proved, who said. I mean the real doers or performers of the action. Those tellers and reporters have to be mentioned initially as they are more important that the topic in question. It is the public who will decide if the doers are trustful or not. In this case, suppose we want to convert the passive voice into the active voice can gain some amelioration of the style.
COMPARE THEM WITH THESE
Here, the active voice is used to set right the defiance of the passive voice but in vain. There is no evidence here that the active voice is any better. There is no difference between passive and active voices as long as both styles hide the same major required information. It is the specification and straightforwardness that characterize the active voice. If it cannot shoulder it, let the passive voice do the task more beautifully and more imaginatively.
- "Some reliable people told us that water in this region is not contaminated".
- "Our laboratories proved that water in this region is clean".
- "People say that water in this region is the purest in the country".
I believe that the passive voice here is the most suitable style because of many reasons; one of which notably is that "laboratory reports are usually written in the passive voice".
- "We were told that water in this region is not contaminated".
- "It was proven that water in this region is clean".
- "Water in this region is said to be the purest in the country".
Story telling style:
We should also acknowledge to the passive voice the craft of breathtaking suspense heightening when the readers are attracted to be involved to make some interpretation effort while reading a story. The readers are more involved when you bombarded them with ambiguous but well designed and rightly built statements. They would accept the challenge and follow you to eventually find out "who did what".
If the novice writers want to venture with this, they should be failure complex immune because the perfect use of such style is always achieved after an accumulation of a series of unsuccessful experiences.
- "It was a chilly winter midnight when the window pane was broken and some foot steps were heard in the corridor".
- "Three women were killed in the grimy village motel during the night".
- "A sharp shriek was heard in the vicinity".
- "Many of those precious paintings were stolen from the gallery".
Generally even in bad styles we have to choose the best. I mean the "less bad". The passive voice here in incontestably the best. Therefore the accusation against the passive voice as a dissimulator of information or as a superfluous style in this case has to be taken back. There should always be taken for fact that the best style is the one which carries the appropriate meaning in the appropriate way.
On the whole, be it active or passive, it is the situation or the expression which dictates the right speech. I dare not advise anybody anything for fear they should miss the beauty and robustness of both the active and the passive voices when they are used as it should be.