by Genevieve Bergeson
Many of us have heard it before; many of us will hear it again: the infamous term “passive voice.”
Some instructors say in bold, capitalized, and not-at-all passive voices, “DO NOT USE PASSIVE VOICE,” as if it stands alongside splint infinitives and end-of-sentence prepositions as the cardinal (albeit mythical in some circles) sins of writing.
I have a confession. Let me whisper it to you.
It is okay to use passive voice. Sometimes it’s even preferable.
While it is true that passivization can impede clarity and concision (especially when used excessively), it is not a grammatical error; it is a stylistic tool for emphasis. Specifically, the subject of the sentence receives the action instead of doing the action.
The mouse ate the cheese. (Active)
The cheese was eaten by the mouse. (Passive)
In the first case, the subject, the mouse, performs the action of eating; in the second, the subject, the cheese, experiences the action of being eaten. A nifty trick: To switch between passive and active voices, move the main words (e.g., cheese, eat, mouse) of the sentence.
Use passive voice…
- To emphasize the object or recipient of an action, not the doer of the action. [Note, this can also divert or hide blame.]
The mice in the science lab were accidentally let loose by the teacher’s assistant.
- When the doer is unknown or you wish to make the doer anonymous.
Class is canceled! (Which, I must say, is much more exciting than “The science teacher canceled class.”)
Be alert! While forms of “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) are good clues, they do not guarantee passive writing.
- As a linking verb, “to be” simply describes something’s state of existence: the cheese is holy, er,
- In progressive tenses, “to be” is a helping verb that indicates continuous activity: The mouse was nibbling the block of Swiss when the cat entered.
I invite you, therefore, to counter resistance—passive and aggressive—to this misunderstood element of style. Intentionally employing the passive voice can bespeak a mouseterful command of the written word.
Genevieve Bergeson, a former Principia College writing tutor and post-graduate teaching intern, delights in all things creative—art, words, and music. She has authored and illustrated the children’s book Racing Pajamas (read more at drawstheeventide.com) and has several other stories in the works.