Writing with Russ: Is Passive Voice Evil?

Posted on November 13, 2014

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Russell Bither-Terry reflects on his experience working at the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center to bring you tips for clear, concise writing. Whether you are an MPA student or a city manager, Russell’s tips can help you in your everyday writing. 

An article was written. Passive voice was used.


by Russell Bither-Terry

Hi folks. I know it’s been a while. In late September I started a job at Oregon Secretary of State Elections Division. Kent asked me to write something about my job hunt search to follow up on my earlier piece. I’ll get to that one of these days after I’ve had more time to mull over what I want to say, but today I want to continue the Writing With Russ series.

A blurb was written by Kent for the first article in this series. In it passive voice was mentioned. It was used excessively by him, the UNC Writing Center was visited to address this problem, and he was helped by the friendly writing tutors.

Maybe you immediately saw what I did there. Maybe that paragraph just felt off, but you’re not sure why. Or maybe you noticed nothing at all. Whatever the case, the problem with that paragraph is all the sentences are in passive voice and the active voice would have been clearer and more concise.

What is passive voice?

There is some confusion about passive voice. The UNC Writing Center handout on it has a good list of five myths. I think one of the most important is the second one:

  •  Any use of “to be” (in any form) constitutes the passive voice.

The passive voice entails more than just using a being verb. Using “to be” can weaken the impact of your writing, but it is occasionally necessary and does not by itself constitute the passive voice.

The verb “to be” is important. Sometimes it is the easiest way to connect two ideas. The issue is using to be in conjunction with another verb. For example, let’s take this simple sentence:

Russell hit the ball.

Now let’s change it to passive voice:images

The ball was hit by Russell.

It’s not the use of the verb “to be” (is/are/was/were) that makes it passive. It’s the use of “to be” with the verb “to hit.” Using the passive version does the following:

  • It makes the sentence about the ball. (Which might be what we want, depending on context).
  • It puts the ball at the start of the sentence and Russell at the end (ditto).
  • It makes the sentence 6 words instead of 4.

With more complicated sentences passive voice can make it difficult to figure out who is doing what to whom.

Going in more depth.

That’s a super basic explanation. There are plenty of resources that go into more details. Even when working with graduate students finishing dissertations I found this video to be the clearest, most efficient way to explain it:

One additional point: That a sentence “feels” like it has no action does not make it passive voice. There are plenty of ways to write bad, lifeless sentences besides using passive voice. Have no fear! There are plenty of ways to revise such sentences to make them better; it’s just that they don’t have to do with passive voice.

When to use passive voice?

tumblr_inline_mheon0VUED1qz4rgpSome people think passive voice is evil and you should never use it. That’s not true: it can be effective, even preferable, in particular situations. The important thing is to know you’re using it and to have a reason for doing so. The end of the video and the handout both discuss when to use it and why.

Many readers won’t notice the occasional passive sentence, but people sometimes fall into a pattern of using it in many sentences in a row. For example:

The initial plans were written and approved. A feasibility study was then conducted by a local university. Startup funds were provided by a federal grant. A pilot location was selected and a new building was constructed.

That paragraph isn’t awful. It communicates a lot of basic information to the reader, but the passive sentences have a cumulative effect of sucking the energy out of this prose. Fixing this would be easy.

The other issue is that it’s not always clear who did these things. Who wrote the plan? Who approved it? This raises the connection between passive voice and responsibility, which is where I want to pick up next.


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