Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why Passive Voice Gets Writers in Trouble

The spiky doorknob on the door to Evil.
Passive voice causes a lot of trouble, for readers as well as writers. But it's clearly not evil.

Someone who writes "No murder weapon was found" is guilty of no grammar felony, no diction misdemeanor.

If we're honest, we have to admit that in many cases, passive voice is actually the best way to say something.

Why, then, does passive voice get such a bad rap? I have my own theories. (I stay up late at night thinking about this sort of thing.)

Writing is linear. Words are written (and read) sequentially. As you read a sentence, word by word, you try to parse it for meaning. My theory is that when you can parse a sentence sequentially, as you read it, it's an "easy" sentence and a rewarding reading experience. Example: When you read something like "The dog barked at the man," you encounter the subject (dog) first, the action-word (barked) second, and the object of the barking (the man) third. That's what I would call natural parse order. The sentence is, in some sense, self-parsing, because the things you need to know occur in the order in which you need to know them (dog -->bark -->man).

When you encounter "The man was barked at by the dog," you have man< -- bark< -- dog, which is harder to make sense of, because it's not in natural parse order. The actor in this sentence (the dog) is at the end. You have to read to the end before you can be 100% sure how to decipher the sentence. But you get an added anti-bonus: the sentence is 25% longer than the active-voice version. Your brain needs to stay online 25% longer.

Funny things start to happen to your writing when you begin to not give a crap about parse order. The first thing that happens is, you start using a lot more passive voice (because you can!), which also means your sentences get longer. Also, suddenly it's possible to write sentences that lack an actor. The longer a sentence is, the more your reader's brain screams out for an actor, a doer, an identifiable subject, because that's where parsing begins. Fail to provide a subject in a long sentence and you've created a parsing nightmare. For example:

It is mandatory that performance trends be continuously monitored and action plans implemented when negative trends are detected that could result in revenues being adversely impacted.

This sentence is a cognitive train-wreck, not because passive voice made it so, per se, but because the writer felt free to write an actor-less sentence that obeys no particular parse order. What made it possible for the writer to write an actor-free sentence? Passive voice. What made it possible for the writer to forget about parse order? Passive voice.

How can we improve the sentence? First, give it an actor. Let's use "managers." Follow up quickly with a verb (monitor) followed by an object (performance trends). Managers must monitor performance trends. Now the sentence begins to feel "self-parsing." Add the extra events: respond (to) -->trends --> (that) affect -->business. Voila! You have an easy-to-parse sentence:

Managers must monitor performance trends and respond quickly to trends that might adversely affect business.

Passive voice itself isn't evil. I like to think of it as the spike-studded doorknob on the door to evil. You have nothing to fear from a spike-studded doorknob per se. Just be careful how you use it.


  1. Anonymous11:00 AM

    The Language Log has a long set of essays on how the passive is often incorrectly identified and incorrectly derided. See for a more technical example of how to identify the passive, and follow its first link for comprehensive list of their essays.

    The problem with this original text was not that it used the passive, but that it was poorly written. This following rewrite is much clearer than the original and it doesn't use the "manager" stand-in.

    "Performance trends must be monitored, with prepared action plans so there can be a quick response to trends that might adversely affect business."

    This keeps one of the things which your final rewrite omitted, which is the need to have "action plans" in case of a negative trend. Otherwise it looks like managers should just wing it when something negative happens.

    Your final rewrite also assumes that only managers may respond to trends. Couldn't the action plans describe how non-managers can be identify and respond to negative trends, even if only to call in a manager?

  2. Great post and fun topic. I think you're correct about word order. Part of the fun of passive is combating English terseness. It's interesting that a few (more?) ancient languages like Latin and Sanskrit have noun declensions that eliminate the need for word order. Sentences in German also seem to follow a pretty random word order often negating an entire sentence by ending with 'nicht' (not). I wonder if this the word order thing is specific to English?

  3. I've never actually thought about what makes passive voice 'bad', but the word order thing makes sense.

    Obviously, passive voice isn't always the wrong way to go. Like most 'rules of writing', there's a time and place. I think passive voice has fallen into the same group with such favourites as 'show, don't tell' and 'write what you know' - quick advice for beginning writers that's never clarified or expanded on.

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.

  4. I felt like I'd entered a wonderful den of inequity when reading that passive voice was sometimes the best way to say something! There's been times when faced with a difficult sentence, the thought of sticking a big old WAS in the middle of it really appealed to me and of late, that's exactly what I've done.

    A big enough boon to get validation from your posting but when editing a piece yesterday, a particularly tangled sentence of mine suddenly stopped struggling in my clutches & fell into sequential order. I held my breath for a moment, then went golly gee, that really works! A big thanks for that!

  5. The purpose of passive voice, in my opinion, is to direct focus to the desired element of the sentence.

    With your simple example... if the author's goal is to make the dog the important part, then it makes sense to say, "The dog barked at the man." But if the author wants to direct attention to the man more, then I believe it's more effective to say, "The man was barked at by the dog."

    Either way, though, I do strongly agree with the idea that we should give a crap how we put sentences together. Passive voice certainly can be a train wreck, but I believe that to be a result, not of passive sentences, but of unintentional writing.

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  7. I often don't like passive voice because it allows the said avoidance of an identifiable subject. Sometimes this is necessary or apposite, but all too often I've seen it used in a sort of pompous way that reminds me of old-fashioned officialspeak. "He was seen last Friday", one might read about a meeting or interview, instead of the more exposed, more risky, more personal and more honest: "I (or person x) saw him last Friday". That distancing of the subject feels dishonest to me in many cases, although it may be necessary when the subject is unknown.
    I'm not so worried by word order as one does need variety in sentence construction in prose of any length. Eg: "The man by the dog barked at was", is fun.

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