© Nani, 2013

40. Should The Passive Be Avoided?

Grammarians uses the term "voice" to express who in a sentence is doing an action and who is receiving it. In the active voice, a subject acts upon an object. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by an agent. While the difference between these voices is simple in principle, in practice it can be very complicated. Let's start with a simple example:

•  Example (active voice): "The girl ate bread."

  The subject "girl" is acting directly upon the object "bread." This same thought can be expressed in the passive voice:

•  Example (passive voice): "The bread was eaten by the girl."


In the first example (active voice), the direct object is "bread" because it's receiving the action of "eating." In the second example (passive voice), "bread" is the subject but still receives the action of the verb because the verb is passive ("was eaten"). To indicate who's doing the action in the passive voice, English uses "by" which shows the person, called the agent, who's doing the action. In the second example, "girl" is the agent. Notice that the active voice says exactly the same thing but is more direct, clear, and forceful. While in some circumstances the passive voice is called for, the active voice works better in formal argumentation the vast majority of the time. Whenever you have the choice, you should use the active voice.

In formal discourse, the passive voice is unacceptable if it is being used to avoid saying who did some thing. There are two instances when this typically happens. The first involves an attempt to avoid first or second person. The second derives from a lack of knowledge or research.
I. Passives with a First- or Second-Person Form Implied

•  Example (with passive voice construction): "The ancient shaduf is seen as a tool for raising water."

    Seen by whom? One possible answer is "by you," but you can't say "you" in formal discourse. Another is "by me or us," but this is also to be avoided. If it turns out that the passive construction is useless—and they often are!—then simply remove it.

•  Example (without passive voice construction): "The ancient shaduf was a tool for raising water."

II. Passives Covering up a Lack of Knowledge or Research

•  Example (passive voice covering up a lack of knowledge): "It has been shown that tokens are a precursor of cuneiform writing. "

    Again, shown by whom? The absence of the historian's name who has argued convincingly tokens were a precursor of cuneiform suggests the writer of the sentence above either does not know the name or couldn't be bothered to look it up. Since it's important to be specific about facts and authorship in historical writing, you must show you have done the proper research and know whose idea this is:

•  Example (active voice showing knowledge): "Denise Schmandt-Besserat has shown that tokens are a precursor of cuneiform writing."

    In sum, if you are asked—or can be asked—by whom, then you need to fix your sentence and most often by removing a passive form or making it active.

*** Important Note! For the interested, the Gramma-philes, and the confused: here is a more technical explanation of voice followed by some examples of passive versus active constructions. ***

Technically speaking, the passive voice in English is constructed by combining a form of the verb "to be" with a past participle (usually ending in -ed). This makes clever mnemonic tricks involving zombies unreliable for determining voice. Avoid zombies. Just look for a form of the verb "to be" (is, are, am, was, were, have been, etc.) followed by a verb usually (but not always) ending in -ed: is attacked, are eaten, am bitten, was infected, were contaminated, have been disemboweled, etc.)

Below are several examples of sentences where the same thought is written in each of the two voices. On the left are those which use the passive. To the right are the same thoughts rewritten in the active.
Passive Verb
Active Verb
  This can be shown by the evidence.   The evidence shows this.  

Gaul was attacked by the Romans.

  The Romans attacked Gaul.  

This work must be done.

  The students must do this work.  

The car will need to be packed.

  You will need to pack the car.  

Vercingetorix was able to withstand Caesar's onslaught until his supply lines were cut off by the Roman reserves.

  Vercingetorix was able to withstand Caesar's onslaught until the Roman reserves cut off his supply lines.  

While being chased by the police, the thief ran into a building.

  While the police chased the thief, he ran into a building.  
The previous examples illustrate passive constructions that must be reordered to correct. The examples below show active solutions that involve removing the passive contruction entirely.

Being shown as central to understanding ancient languages, the Rosetta Stone is among the most important archeological finds of the 19th century.

  The Rosetta Stone, which is central to understanding ancient languages, is among the most important archeological finds of the 19th century.  





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