“Avoid it”, the style guides write, “unless you really know what you are doing”. The implication is you don’t. With examples like “a book is bought by me”, they show the passive voice’s clumsy wordiness. It requires “more cognitive effort”, points out one guide, though so to be honest does the very next sentence, “this decreases the likelihood of you getting your message across”.

If it’s so useless, who invented it anyway? Well, no-one. Pinker famously showed that language grows organically, with evolutionary purpose, each grammatical quirk as inevitable as a shark’s friction-reducing skin. A better question is, “What problem does the passive voice solve?”

Firstly, language often grows along efficient pathways. If the doer (agent) of the clause is not important, you can omit it, cutting words. If your “phone’s been stolen”, then that is probably what you should tell the police. Unless you think it was stolen by aliens, in which case the agent becomes more important, and the police less useful.

In the same way, if “Elvis is rumored to be alive”, the first thing you need to know is that we’re talking about Elvis, and the second is what we’re saying about him. Who is saying it is less important. To be fair to the style guides, most do concede this point, in the counter-argument near the bottom of the page before they return to the general risk of the passive voice. (The Elvis example is from Grammarly.)

But this counterpoint is incomplete. The underlying purpose of the the passive is to focus on what’s important. In the Elvis sentence, Elvis is the topic – the theme. That he may be alive is the comment on that topic – the rheme, to use a linguistic term. In a passage of text with many sentences, readers need a smooth flow of theme and rheme to follow the narrative and keep focused.

This passage doesn’t flow well:

The second world war began in September 1939. The invasion of Poland by German troops caused it. The Polish Socialist Party governed Poland at this time.

This says the same thing but much more smoothly:

The second world war began in September 1939. It was caused by the invasion of Poland by German troops. At this time Poland was governed by the Polish Socialist Party.

In this second example, the second and third sentences each start with known, given information before adding something new. Rheme follows theme and the reader follows the incremental flow of narrative. There are some useful diagrams of theme-rheme progression in this paper.

Another way the passive voice can help information flow is when you have a lot to say about the agent of the clause. Sentences are easier to read when the verb comes early, when the reader doesn’t have to stack up a pile of ideas before finding out what happened with them. In a book on writing that everyone should read, Joe Moran constructs a fictitious scenario around a famous sculpture:

The Angel of the North was stolen by art thieves who cut its ankles with an angle grinder, lugged it on to the back of a lorry and made their getaway on the A1.
- Joe Moran, First You Write a Sentence

We quickly get the basics, but the rest of the sentence unpacks the juicy details – the crude amputation; the effort; the speeding off down the longest road in Britain.

It does take some thought and practice to write like that, but we don’t need to understand the mechanics of passive voice academically to use it effectively. Indeed, some of its detractors adopt it unconsciously. Does the writer of “Your Grade School Teachers Were Right: Avoid Using the Passive Voice” realize that it has slipped in naturally here (italics mine)?

One common way the passive voice is employed (and thus an easy red flag to look for when trying to identify it in your own writing) is the use of some form of “to be” verb plus a past participle.

The irony is not so much that the passive voice creeps in, but that it works well in the context.

To be fair to the style guides, the passive voice is often abused. Sometimes deliberately, to try to hide blame by omitting the agent, for example the famous government non-apologies that “mistakes were made”. But if someone knows enough to use a language feature in this way, there are other features that equally hide responsibility. Would it be any better to hear that “the relevant agencies, though closely monitoring the situation throughout, unfortunately encountered a delayed response that affected the suitability of the given advice”. No passive voice there but plenty of finger-pointing waffle.

Also in organizational communications, some writers still use the passive voice unconsciously because it sounds suitably official. As the father of two elementary-age daughters, I get school newsletters with some typically awkward phrasing: “the show was enjoyed by the children”, “if a dinner was not well received”, “feedback forms were not distributed”. The writing is very much of the “local community organization” genre, and I’m sure few others notice it, but I can’t help feeling it would do the job better if written more naturally.

But more finger-wagging won’t help here, since there’s little grammatical analysis going on when such letters are written. If we want to improve the general standard of writing, rather than pointing out others’ mistakes, we had better model good writing ourselves. Writing that flows from given to new; gives main verbs quickly and then unpacks; omits irrelevant agents; and isn’t intimidated by the style guides.

(Originally posted at https://blog.joepairman.com/2020/05/17/the-passive-voice-was-never-bad/)