passive voice

Originally written for the blog of Light Creative.

 

We’ve touched on active and passive voice before, but it can be a complicated decision, so we thought we’d provide a bit more clarity.

First of all, let’s recap:

Active voice means the subject is doing the action.

Passive voice means the subject is being acted upon.

Here are some examples, using the eternally beloved Inspector Gubbins (a crime-solving dog who follows his nose and his heart) as the subject:

Active voice: Inspector Gubbins ate an old shoe.

Passive voice: The old shoe was eaten by Inspector Gubbins.

Active voice: Inspector Gubbins is investigating the case of the missing old shoe.

Passive voice: The case of the missing old shoe is being investigated by Inspector Gubbins.

Active voice: Inspector Gubbins received a medal for his work on the case of the missing old shoe.

Passive voice: A medal was awarded to Inspector Gubbins for his work on the case of the missing old shoe.

It’s generally a safer bet to use the active voice, because it usually leads to clearer, simpler sentences and makes for easier reading. Clear, unambiguous copy conveys a sense of authority and integrity, and readers love it!

 

Why you should avoid the passive voice whenever possible:

When used incorrectly, the passive voice can lead you into an impenetrable jungle of prepositional phrases – ate becomes was eaten by, investigating becomes being investigated by, and before you know it you have no idea where the subject of your sentence went and why you cared in the first place.

Active voice: The Mayor gave Inspector Gubbins the keys to the city in a shiny box with a lovely ribbon on top.

Passive voice: The keys to the city were given to Inspector Gubbins in a shiny box with a lovely ribbon on top by the Mayor.

If your reader can’t follow the meaning of your copy through the Preposition Jungle, they might become frustrated and lose interest – no one likes to be confused. Plus there are spiders in jungles, dangling from trees like gross, eight-legged participles.

 

When to use the passive voice:

Having said all that, the passive voice exists for a reason, and sometimes it’s the best voice for the job (we still love you, Passive Voice – take us back?). The passive voice adjusts the sentence so that it emphasises the thing that is being acted upon, rather than the thing that is doing the acting:

Active voice: Inspector Gubbins ate an old shoe.

Passive voice: The old shoe was eaten by Inspector Gubbins.

Essentially, the passive voice takes the focus away from the actor. Depending on what you want out of your copy, this makes the passive voice a powerful tool for a couple of situations.

 

When you want to emphasise something other than the actor:

If the actor is not the most important part of your sentence, the passive voice allows you to emphasise the action or the acted-upon, rather than the actor:

Passive voice: The man suspected of stealing the old shoe was questioned by police for many hours.

Active voice: The police questioned the man suspected of stealing the old shoe for many hours.

Sometimes this is dictated by the context of your sentence:

Passive voice: The Department of Shoes were horrified by the case of the missing shoe, and wrote an extensive proposal to the Mayor’s office to amend the city’s footwear-protection laws. The proposal was endorsed by Inspector Gubbins and the rest of the police force.

Active voice: The Department of Shoes were horrified by the case of the missing shoe, and wrote an extensive proposal to the Mayor’s office to amend the city’s footwear-protection laws. Inspector Gubbins and the rest of the police force endorsed the proposal.

 

When you want to keep the actor out of the sentence altogether:

Sometimes you don’t want the actor to appear in your sentence at all. For example, if the actor is unknown, the passive voice allows you to construct the sentence without the actor:

Passive voice: The old shoe has been eaten.

Active voice: ? has eaten the old shoe.

Passive voice: The spoons have gone missing.

Active voice: ? took all the spoons.

Or perhaps the actor is known, but you want to be tactful and avoid naming names. Passive voice has got you covered:

Passive voice: We think that the old shoe has been eaten. [Everybody gasps in astonishment and agrees that something must be done. Inspector Gubbins raises his sweet paw and volunteers to sniff out the perpetrator!]

Active voice: We think that Inspector Gubbins ate the old shoe. Bad Inspector! [Inspector Gubbins hangs his adorable head in shame, and everybody feels very awkward indeed!]

Passive voice: All the spoons have gone missing from the kitchen.

Active voice: Ethelbert took all the spoons from the kitchen, and now everyone must stir their tea with knives. Thanks a lot, Ethelbert.

You can catch a lot of politicians using the passive voice this way, especially when something’s gone wrong and they want to shift focus away from the person responsible – mistakes were made, rather than I made a mistake.

 

All in all, the passive voice is a bit like a loose pair of earphones – great to have around, and often very useful, but likely to become impossibly tangled and incredibly frustrating if appropriate care isn’t taken. Don’t put the passive voice in your pocket, is basically what we’re saying.