Posts Tagged ‘active voice’

All too often, English grammar is reduced to a series of rules. Instead of being a description of how the language is currently used, it becomes a prescription that should be followed in every circumstance. This habit is a sign of bad teaching, probably by people whose own knowledge of grammar is shaky. Usually, however, it is an over-simplification, as it is in the absolute prohibition against the passive voice.

The passive voice (if you need reminding) is the removal of the obvious subject from the sentence. Sometimes, the proper subject becomes the dative, or the agent of the action (“The lawn was mowed by him”), but it is often left out entirely (“The lawn was mowed”). Instead, in either case, it is replaced by what should be the object. For example, instead of “He groaned,” the passive voice would be “A groan was torn from him.” Since before students are old enough to understand the difference, they are told that they should always use the active voice of “He groaned” and avoid the passive voice equivalent.

In many cases, the active voice has advantages. For one thing, it is shorter.. It is also politer, but, even more importantly, the passive voice is used to disguise responsibility by the speaker, or to make the sentence seem more important than it is – habits that are all too common in academia and politics. By converting the sentence to the active voice, you can immediately see if the speaker has something to hide. For example, “Social services were cut” is more likely to be accepted than “We cut social services.”

All the same, the idea that the passive voice should never be used in English is misleading. To start with, in English, constructions that start with “it” but offer no pronoun reference are considered idiomatically correct — that is, correct from common usage rather than any logic. When Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice with, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” she is writing colloquially, not committing an unforgivable sin. Besides, the pompous construction is funnier – and more ironic– than “Everyone acknowledges that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

In other cases, when to use the passive voice rather than the active comes down to what you want to emphasize. In my initial example, the difference between the active and the passive does not just lie in the information conveyed. All the active voice does is let the audience know that a male figure has groaned. However, “a groan was torn from him” is more descriptive, because it suggests a sense of helplessness. The groaner, the passive voice suggests, did not want to groan, but, because of mental or physical distress, cannot help himself. Far from being a clumsy construction, it conveys more information than the active voice, and can therefore be the preferred construction. Write an entire paragraph in the passive voice, and you create the impression of someone who has no control over what is happening and increase the tension in the narrative.

Like all point of grammar, the decision of whether to use the passive voice should not be based on a memorized rule that decreases the flexibility of the language. Instead, think of what you want to convey and decide which voice expresses it most effectively within its context. Should the passive voice be most effective for your purposes, you should use it without fear of being thought uneducated. It is the ones who would outlaw all uses of the passive voice who are uneducated, not those who use the construction to their own advantage.

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