passive voice

When to Use Passive Voice

If you write for long enough, you’ll eventually come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to completely avoid using passive voice. That isn’t to say your professors were wrong when they told you not to use it. Both are true: you shouldn’t use it, and you can’t help but use it. I’m sorry. English is a cruel language.

I’ve already defined passive voice and offered strategies for identifying and avoiding it in an older post. If you haven’t read that one yet, feel free to do so and then click back over here. This article will still be here when you get back. Promise.

Good? Okay, let’s get started.

In my earlier post, I give three example sentences, in which using active voice would make little sense. They are:

The die was cast.

John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960.

The celebrity was mocked.

Each of these statements forgoes active voice for a great reason. By examining them closely, we can determine how and when passive voice may be used effectively.

Use Passive Voice to Preserve Your Meaning

The die was cast.

Many idioms use passive voice, but the above would lose its meaning if reworded. Using an active subject here – e.g., “Caesar cast the die.” – makes it sound as if you are discussing gamblers.

Remember: writing in the active voice is all about ensuring clarity in your work, so you shouldn’t go out of your way to avoid passive voice if it will change your intended meaning. Thankfully, this situation rarely appears.

Use Passive Voice When the Actor Is Unnecessary

John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960.

We could say “The American people elected John F. Kennedy in 1960,” but, unless we’re writing for young children, our audience can infer who elected JFK. The actor is obvious, so adding it does nothing to improve the sentence’s clarity.

Sometimes the actors are simply unimportant. Consider the following sentences:

The prisoners were executed.

Police have been alerted.

The operation was completed.

Although it probably matters very little who executed the prisoners, alerted the police, or completed the operation, you – as the writer – are the ultimate judge of which things are important enough to include in your report. If, for example, you are writing about a whistleblower, it could be more effective to use active voice – and call the actor by name – than to say, “The corporation was reported.”

While passive voice is also useful when the actor is unknown, the active voice often remains preferable, for clarity’s sake. Both “My car has been stolen!” and “Someone stole my car!” are correct. However, your choice to use passive voice here may cause your audience to erroneously believe you know the thief’s identity. Proceed with caution.

Use Passive Voice to Show Oppression

The celebrity was mocked.

When you’re talking about oppression – be it bullying, racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia – it may be preferable to use passive voice in your discussion. In these situations, passive voice acts as a rhetorical device to highlight the extent to which the subject is disenfranchised.

While you shouldn’t avoid pointing fingers where pointing fingers is due, it can be difficult to pin down a single perpetrator when you’re discussing an institution like racism. This is why the passive voice is so useful in these discussions. Use it sparingly, however: you don’t want to seem as if you are covering up – or making excuses for – oppression in your writing.

What gives you trouble when you try to write? Let me know by leaving a comment!