Using the Passive Voice
Just as the overuse of any linguistic form can create irritation, so too can the overuse of the passive voice. However, when used appropriately, passive sentences are perfectly legitimate English sentence structures.
1. Use the passive voice to avoid repetition and increase variety. For example:
- The pirates stole into the town in the middle of the night. When the pirates invaded his house, the timid doctor fought the pirates to save his family.
- The pirates stole into the town in the middle of the night. When his house was invaded, the timid doctor fought the pirates to save his family.
In the first pair of sentences, only the active voice is used which results in a repetition of the noun phrase the pirates. In the second pair of sentences, however, the active When the pirates invaded his house is replaced by the passive When his house was invaded. The reader must infer from the context that the pirates from the previous sentence had invaded the house. Because of the assumption that readers can understand such an implication, writers can increase the variety of sentence structures in their writing. However, writers must make certain that such implications are clear. Confusion is worse than repetition.
2. Use the passive voice when the grammatical agent is unknown or unimportant. For example:
- Too much pollution has been dumped in the river.
- Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.
In the first sentence, the grammatical agent is unknown. Who dumped too much pollution in the river? In the second sentence, the grammatical agent is unimportant. The American people clearly elected Obama president because the American people always elect the president. However, the unknownness or unimportance of a grammatical agent is always context specific. For example, the agent becomes known when the speaker of the first sentence is an environmental agency addressing the board of directors of a company that dumps its waste into the river.
3. Use the passive voice to emphasize the direct object in an active sentence. For example:
- The child was hit by a car.
- Your luggage was lost by the airline.
Both sentences are examples of the passive voice being used to move emphasis from the subject to the direct object of an active sentence. In the first sentence, the speaker cares more about the child as the victim of being hit by a car than the car being the agent doing the hitting. The speaker of the second sentence is similarly more concerned with the lost luggage than the airline doing the losing of the luggage. However, a writer must take careful consideration when deciding to move emphasis from the subject to the direct object.
4. Use the passive voice to de-emphasize the grammatical subject of an active sentence. For example:
- Mistakes were made.
- The program was tampered with.
In the first sentence, the speaker completely omits the agent. The person who made the mistakes could, therefore, be either the speaker or someone else entirely. The same is true for the second sentence in which the tamperer of the program is not identified. So, yes, sometimes the passive voice intentionally hides the grammatical subject of a sentence. For example, a politician might say that mistakes were made when really the politician made the mistakes but he or she does not want to admit guilt. However, the passive voice also de-emphasizes agents when the agent is of little importance as in the second sentence in which the issue is that the program was tampered with, not that any particular person tampered with the program.