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.

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Author: C. Scott Wyatt