Michael Gove, the [British] Education Secretary, has joined the Campaign Against the Passive Voice. He follows in the footsteps of Strunk and White (whose section on the passive voice, while more nuanced than many people recognise, is calamitously misleading) and of George Orwell (who complained about the passive while using it extensively himself, even in the same sentence as his complaint).
The campaign isn't wholly wrong, but it goes too far and it doesn’t properly understand the problem. The passive voice is often better than the active, and its overuse is usually a symptom of something else.Freeman concludes:
There are times when the difference between the active and passive doesn’t matter much. If you’ve been staring at two versions of a sentence for a while, trying to decide which is better, chances are you’ll be fine either way. Pick one and get on with life.
active vs. passive verbs A verb is active when it shows the subject acts or does something: The clown caught the bouquet. The board approved the contract unanimously. A verb is passive when the subject of the verb is acted upon: The bouquet was caught by the clown. The contract was passed unanimously by the board.
The active voice is simpler, more direct and more forceful than the passive voice. Passive voice may be acceptable when the person or thing receiving the action is more important than the person or thing doing the acting.
Also, avoid shifts between active and passive within a sentence. Change: The new website manager majored in English and was employed by the city as an editor. To: The new manager majored in English and worked at the city as an editor. See headlines.
Rita Mae Brown, Starting from Scratch, 1988: "Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. University term papers bleed with the passive voice. It seems to be the accepted style of Academia. Dump it."
headlines, headings ...
For headlines, state or imply a complete sentence in the present tense. Avoid using passive voice. Omit most "helping" and "to be" verbs: Road improvements planned for Belvidere Avenue Southwest instead of Road improvements are planned for Belvidere Avenue Southwest. Cut articles (a, an, the): School district schedules open house on proposed curriculum changes instead of School district has scheduled an open house on the proposed curriculum changes. Infinitive is preferred to future tense: City Council to consider budget recommendation instead of The City Council will consider the budget recommendation. In headlines with more than one line, avoid separating verbs of more than one word, modifiers from the words they modify and prepositions from the phrases they introduce. ...I also discuss passive voice in the Writing clear, simple sentences section of Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide:
Use active voice verbs--unless there's a strong reason to use passive
Putting the "doer"--the person or thing doing the action in a sentence--in front of its verb will usually ensure the verb is in the active voice. The "doer" in active sentences is usually named or described at the start of the sentence. The active is more direct; it helps drive home the message. Active verbs usually suggest that someone is doing something: collapse, confuse, jump. The passive can obscure the message.
Active voice is usually more concise than passive voice. Sentences that are passive instead of active usually contain forms of the verb to be: am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being. And those verbs usually come before verbs than end in -ed or -en: carried, taken.
- Instead of:
_______The fund-raising campaign was approved by the Executive Committee.
- Use:The Executive Committee approved the fund-raising campaign.
- Instead of:Complaints are taken seriously by the Parks Department.
- Use:The Parks Department takes complaints seriously.Passive voice may be suitable for one of these reasons: when you don't know the doer or actor, when the doer or actor is unimportant to the point you're making, or when the emphasis is clearly not on the actor but the acted upon.
Freeman's blog entry is featured today, July 6, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free emails subscription.