Passive Voice is Okay (Sometimes)

We should stop telling students and emerging writers that the passive voice is some sort of mortal sin in texts. It is not. Sometimes, the passive voice offers the best way to control what a reader perceives as important.

Consider the following reasons to use passive voice:
1. Technical manuals.
2. Aphorisms with no agent (actor) involved.
3. Unknown agent with the result more important than the action.
4. Action-focused sentences without a named agent.

Technical instructions are passive to focus on the object instead of the user of the object, often for legal compliance reasons.

Valve X is set to 150 degrees by the operator after ten minutes.
The software settings are found in the preferences menu.
The car should not be left in gear when parked.

The emphasis in technical manuals remains on the object of documentation: the valve, the application, the car.

“Universal Truth” or aphorism are often passive statements.

Rules are meant to be broken.
The universe is for exploring.

Any revision of that “truism” would be awkward, at best. “The people making rules mean for them to be broken.”

Unknown agents result in passive constructions. If you do not know who committed an action, it is appropriate to use passive voice.

My camera bag was stolen.
The bank was robbed.
The victim was beaten severely.

The thief is unknown in these examples, yet was the agent of action. Revising as “Someone stole my camera bag” shifts the focus to “someone” instead of the more important camera gear now missing.

Action-focused attention, or sentences meant to stress the object of the action are passive (and often the agent is omitted).

The family albums were burned in anger.

Revising this would be matter of style: “The stepson burned the family albums” might or might not convey the desired importance.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University ( is one of the two websites I check when I have a writing related question. The other is the Tameri Guide, of course, since Susan and I tend to add content to Tameri based on our experiences writing and teaching. I am a bit envious of the great content on Purdue OWL, though. It is probably the best academic writing site on the Web.

Recently the OWL began adding slide shows, movies, and podcasts for students and teachers. The MLA and APA citation guides were already invaluable, but I’ve started to accept that students want content in digital form.

The podcasts’ content focuses on rhetorical concepts. Because students struggle with ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, any additional explanations are helpful. I’m for anything that helps students sort through the complicated textbook definitions of these concepts.

For a few years the OWL has been adding PowerPoint presentations on a range of writing topics. I’m not a fan of PowerPoint; slides are best used to introduce topics. Slides, by their nature, are superficial and should be accompanied by further reading and discussion. Still, the slides help students focus on key topics and concepts they should remember. The long list of available presentations is impressive and I do encourage teachers and students to browse the OWL library.

The OWL movies focus on visual rhetoric, but they too can be useful for writers. Unless we’re discussing audiobooks, most of our words appear on pages or screens. Design affects the perceptions of texts, including how seriously a reader approaches the words. The OWL movies are a good starting point for discussions of visual rhetoric.

For the basics of academic writing, you won’t find many resources equal to the OWL. Again, the website is:

Language Users vs The Grammarians

I advise avoiding pronouns when possible because most writers “tangle” the text. Though the writer knows what is intended, the readers end up confused. I’ve wasted too much time as a reader trying to determine what “those” and “these” were replacing in a paragraph.

Other languages can still create their own confusions for any number of reasons. English lacks any formal rules, though we keep trying to apply them to the language. We spoke for more than 400 years without any concept of grammar or “correct” usage. Grammarians did not create the rules — they noticed and documented the structures that had become standardized usage.

Today, we tell students these rules are important. Why? We imagine there were grammarians in Rome? I’ve lectured on the evolution of writing instruction and most of what we do today didn’t emerge until the nineteenth century. Many of the “rules” we teach students first appeared in Fowler’s essays and texts. If I recall the history, Fowler added the rule demanding we not end sentences with prepositions, though doing so was common in Shakespeare’s works and every other major English-language writer’s compositions.

Intensive grammar instruction in the 1950s and 60s did not produce a wave of brilliant writers. Grammar is an artifact, to be discovered through observation and then documented. Grammar is not something to be dictated by a few self-elected experts. Until the German educational reforms of the nineteenth century, we understood that grammar was subordinate to effective communication.

I am not arguing each person should create his or her own grammar, but I am arguing that the purists overstate the importance of grammar. I believe, based on my own research and readings, that grammar is somehow inherent in the human brain; we seek to organize and standardize for efficiency and clarity. Languages are constantly and unconsciously revised by a community to meet changing circumstances. Grammarians are the antithesis of change and evolution, assuming the roles of careful moderators to restrain the wild libertines abusing the grammarians’ beloved syntax.

My students should learn grammar and appreciate it. I expect students to learn “standard” English and adhere to it in all academic writing. However, I also remind them that speaking in and insisting on “proper” English is a guaranteed path towards isolation. I’m not about to tell my students “Urban English” (“Ebonics”) is acceptable to the business or academic communities. However, I also remind the students that business English is not the same as academic English. We simply “disguise” our linguistic differences better in the supposed middle- and upper-class professional realms.

I am appalled that “texting” slips into student papers. The reality is that their “new” language will be widely used in a generation, even in business writing. I might not like that, but language will continue to evolve without my consent.