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.