When the passive voice can be used

Self-proclaimed experts on writing often express contempt for the passive voice, whether they understand what it is or not. Language Log has a good discussion of what it is and where it’s a perfectly good choice. It covers obscure cases that most people don’t know about.

Rather than offering my own defense of the passive voice, I’ll just list some of my own favorite uses of it.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights… (Declaration of Independence)

‘Tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. (Hamlet)

This episode was badly written! (Galaxy Quest)

Seek for the Sword that was broken:
In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand. (Lord of the Rings)

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (“I Have a Dream”)

Some people will tell you the passive voice should always be avoided, but they’re best ignored.

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2 Responses to “When the passive voice can be used”

  1. Curt Smothers Says:

    Nice work, Gary. I think there is a place for the passive voice, and most good writers never adhere to the “never” or “always” rules. On the whole, however, for punchy commercial writing, I try to minimize the passive in favor of the active.

    But that’s just me. In my previous life in military and education administration I met senior senior officers and college deans who fled in panic from active verbs. You know “Mistakes were made,” or “a rich educational experience will be encountered.” It was as if they lived in a bubble universe, untouched by the consequences of their actions and papered with ornate, purple prose.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      The active voice works especially well for commercial writing, where you’re trying to motivate people to take action. The passive voice often works better for abstract situations, where the action or the recipient is more important than the actor, or for dramatic writing where mentioning the actor last gives extra impact.
      English limits word order more than some other languages. The passive voice helps to get around this limitation.


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