I’ve had this discussion a few times in comments on other posts in the blogosphere, but I thought it deserved its own time in the limelight.
There are grammar junkies out there who were taught (or otherwise believe) that passive voice is wrong. It is bad. It is NOT TO BE DONE. If you show up to your writing group they will find and pick out each and every one (if your writing group isn’t as friendly as mine).
I would argue they are wrong.
Now hear me out. Active voice is stronger. It is more powerful. It is often “more right” than passive voice. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for passive voice.
For those of you who maybe (like me) didn’t have grammar taught to them in school, I’ll give my quick definition of a passive sentence. A passive sentence is why you can put (or it’s already there), “by Joe,” after the verb. In these sentences, the subject isn’t the one doing the action, but receiving the action. For example: The ball was kicked (by Joe). The bottle was run over (by Joe’s car).
Now that we know what passive voice is, let’s look at some examples and I’ll show you where I think there’s an argument for using it over active voice. I’ll mark active voice with A and passive voice with P.
1.) A: Sam wrote a letter vs. P: A letter was written by Sam.
2.) A: A person or persons unknown killed Joe vs. P: Joe was killed by a person or persons unknown.
3.) A: Sally ate the worm. vs. P: The worm was eaten by Sally.
In example #1, we are far more likely to be interested in Sam than “a letter.” Sam is the rightful subject, so active voice makes much more sense. It is more powerful, and less complicated.
In example #2, we’ve got an ambiguous set of killers and a definite victim. While the killers are the ones who did the action, Joe is the topic at hand. He was killed. That is what is important. So, using passive voice to make Joe the subject of the sentence makes sense.
Example #3 is more ambiguous. Let’s suppose a story that goes like this:
Sally was a strange girl. She liked to do things that were shocking to the other girls at the playground. In first grade, she picked up a worm that was on the playground. By second grade, the other girls didn’t find this shocking any more. When they failed to squirm, squeal, or notice her carrying around a worm, she decided she had to be more shocking still. Sally ate the worm.
In this case, it would make no sense to use the passive voice option (the worm was eaten by Sally).
However, I can imagine another case where it would make sense to use the passive voice. Try this story:
The worm crawled up as the water level rose. The heavy rains had caused the ground to swell with water. His normal tunnels were full and he crawled slowly to the surface to escape drowning. He finally broke through. Rain pelted down on him, but there was air. He slid across the top of the soil, trying to find high ground to wait out the storm.
At long last, the storm broke. It was still to wet to venture underground, so he crawled slowly off to find food. Unbeknownst to him, he was near a playground. This was where his luck ran out. He was picked up and carried around. Then, in one big gulp, the worm was eaten. He never found dry ground.
Since the story is about the worm, it makes sense to use passive voice (especially if we haven’t introduced the person doing the eating).
So, with these examples in mind, I would argue that there is a time and a place for passive voice, and that is when the object of an action is the focus of the discussion.
That being said, there is one other acceptable use of passive voice (in my opinion). That use is to provide variety. This is mostly for procedural writing. However, it may apply elsewhere. The argument for passive voice in these cases is that it is both hard to read, and rather dull, if sentence structure does not vary for a long period of time.
To illustrate, consider this:
First, we got out the vials. Then, we measured the liquid. We also measured two solids. We measured out two parts brown solid for each part white solid. We combined the solids in the liquid. We warmed the mixture for thirty minutes. We removed the mixture from the heat.
Now the same procedure with a bit more variety, courtesy of passive voice:
First we got out the vials. Then, we measured the liquid. The two solids were also measured out. We measured two parts brown solid for each part white solid. The solids were combined in the liquid. We warmed the mixture for thirty minutes. We removed the mixture from the heat.
I’m not going to say either is “more correct” than the other, but the second one is less mind-numbing to me.
So, that is my case for acceptance of passive voice. Do you agree, disagree, not care? Let me know in the comments