Continuing our series on “seldoms,” let’s cover passive voice and its foil, an old favorite of mine, first person.
Academic disciplines and academic advisors vary widely with regard to whether or not they discourage first person. In some fields, it’s completely acceptable and in others it’s still mostly discouraged, despite the fact that style manuals such as the sixth edition of the APA Manual explicitly allow and encourage first person when it is the option that offers the most clarity.
Unlike the context-sensitive first person, passive voice comes up pretty often as a characteristic of weak writing. I pair them together, though, because when writers are discouraged from using first person (by themselves or by others), passive voice is the technique they most often pick up. Teachers, writing resources, and word processor grammar checkers all discourage it for good but not universally applicable reasons:
First, passive voice obscures the agent of the action in the sentence. Who administered the surveys? Dunno, they were just administered. Second, some passive voice constructions—especially, ironically, those that do identify the agent—can become unnecessarily convoluted and confusingly wordy. Such constructions, when written by students who are advised by professors who were taught that first person must always be avoided, are hard to be read even by fellow scholars without . . . ahem. I mean: there are much simpler ways to write sentences like that.
But . . . but . . . but . . . what do you do if you’re not supposed to do either one?
See, here’s the biggest problem with rejecting passive voice outright. Sometimes when you’re deliberately avoiding both first person and passive voice, the effort will help you arrive at a sentence construction that communicates your point even more effectively than you would have with either one. But all too often, the fallback approaches just sound even worse, and novice writers frequently head straight for them because they take the least thought. Perhaps the most common of those and the one that makes me peeve the hardest is when a writer refers to themselves as “the researcher” or “the author” not once or twice but over and over and &*#%%$ over because they don’t know how else to talk about the surveys being administered.
Seldom Use Passive Voice
When I’m editing a document that contains entire paragraphs of “The researcher did this . . .” and “Next, the researcher did that . . .” I try to get rid of as many of these phrases as I can. If an option works that doesn’t involve any of the nonideal constructions, then of course I go with that. For instance, maybe we don’t even have to talk about the researcher administering the surveys or the surveys having been administered. Maybe the participants received them. Hallelujah, change the agent of the sentence and everything else falls into place.
Sometimes, however, there is no such fix, and I have to figure out which evil is lesser or least. Between passive voice and a first-person-disguised-as-third-person reference to “the researcher,” guess what I choose?
Well, first, I email the client and say, “Are you absolutely sure your advisor doesn’t want you to use first person for this APA-style dissertation even though APA itself recommends it for passages like this?”
And then when they write back saying, “Yes, I’m sure,” I return to the document and apply passive voice.
So yes, I don’t consider passive voice a never, I consider it a seldom. And here’s why.
First, just because it can obscure the sentence’s acting subject, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, the answer to a question like “Who administered the surveys?” is, “Who the heck do you think?” Sometimes the agent is just so obvious that you don’t even notice it’s missing from the sentence. We use passive voice in conversation all the time. “The TV was already turned off.” “Make sure the trash got taken out.” “My BLT was smothered in mayo.” Let’s say that in context we know that I turned the TV off, you took the trash out, and the worker at the deli counter smothered the sandwich in mayo. But the passive voice versions all make enough sense that it doesn’t need to be said.
Other times the lack of active voice calls attention to itself but the agent is still implied in less direct ways. If the surveys were administered by anyone besides the writer (e.g., research assistants), then the writer would have ethically had to say so, and there would be no reason not to write the sentence in the active voice. The passive voice in this case becomes an indication that the agent is the person who can’t easily identify themselves as the agent.
Second, sometimes passive voice is actually the best option available. If the object (the acted-upon entity in the sentence) is far more important than the agent, then don’t stress over trying to reconstruct the sentence. The agents who might be involved in “The parking spots by the building were all filled” really aren’t that important, and “The drivers filled the parking spots by the building” just sounds silly.
Third, once you recast as many would-be passive sentences as possible, you really shouldn’t be left with many that have no better option, so the seldom is built right into the process. When you have sentences that have a subject but are written in passive voice anyway (that is, sentences that use the “[passive verb] by [actor]” structure), you can usually just turn those around, with the actor at the beginning of the sentence.
If you ever use Word’s grammar check feature for the green squigglies that appear under sentences and phrases it wants you to double check, it loves to point out those constructions, and its recommended revisions always simply revolve the pieces of the sentence around the word by. (Do note, of course, that grammar check delivers a lot of false positives—i.e., things it thinks are grammar problems but aren’t—and sometimes its recommended revisions are laughable nonsense. Grammar check isn’t a very clever robot; take a closer look at anything it points out, but judge the underlined bits for yourself rather than expecting it to know better than a human.)
Passive voice is not a demon; it’s more like a really fat cat that wants you to carry it all the time. Pick it up once in a while when it’s acting particularly cute, but really, the writing will benefit from being active more often than not.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.