Passive Paranoia

NOTE: This article made with 10% real passive voice. It has been circulating in various forms since 1987, when I wrote it to encourage my beleaguered classmates in the Aviation Officer Advanced Course at Fort Rucker, Alabama. That course was the first time I wrote under the alias Dr. Squid.

Defending Against Passive Paranoia

The rule "use the active voice" and its slightly more indulgent sibling "prefer the active voice" are banes for business and military writers, two professions where grammar bullies skulk and scupper in abundance. It is even rumored that a former Chief of Staff of the Army actually tried outlawing the use of passive voice entirely.

The trouble is that, even though passive-voice-infested bureaucrat-speak (a.k.a. bureaucratese) is one of the most hideous forms of communication, the passive voice is not always wrong. In fact, it's often the better choice, and in some cases the passive voice is the only way to say something and have it make sense. The solution to bad writing isn't to avoid the passive voice. What we really want to avoid are clumsy, vague, wordy, and otherwise poorly written sentences. Sometimes that means preferring the passive voice.

The past participle of any transitive verb fundamentally qualifies as an adjective. And when the word is actually considered an adjective, what's clearly a passive-voice sentence is no longer considered passive voice.

Go figure.

Second-Class Citizens

Verbs are shameless cross-dressers. By modifying their appearance, they can pass themselves off as nouns and adjectives and further transform into adverbs. Our concern here is with transitive verbs that slip on their past tense and behave as adjectives. Such words—like fried, scrambled, poached, boiled, burnt, uncooked, and upchucked—are known as past participles. When these past participles join with a be verb, they form the passive voice, so called because the receiver of the verb's action, not the actor, becomes the subject of the sentence. In active voice, the receiver is the object of the sentence. The actor is the subject.

Here are some passive-voice sentences that I think are just fine.

  1. Smith was elected mayor
  2. Your dad was taken to intensive care an hour ago.
  3. Lincoln was born in a log cabin.
  4. I am relieved to see that you made it.
  5. I am related to Barb.
  6. Bill was laid off.

The Basic Problem With Avoiding Passive Voice

The past participle of any transitive verb fundamentally qualifies as an adjective. (In fact, that's what a participle is supposed to mean—a verb that can be used as an adjective.) And when the word is actually considered an adjective, what's clearly a passive-voice sentence is no longer considered passive voice. Go figure.

Tired is a past participle that the English-speaking world universally recognizes as an adjective. It would be pretty silly for some grammar bully to insist that I rewrite the passive-voice sentence "I was tired from working all day" to the active form "Working all day tired me."

But it's not silly if said grammar bully refuses to accept the past participle as an adjective. For example, according to Merriam-Webster Online (—at the time I'm writing this, anyway—confused is recognized as a proper adjective, but puzzled and stumped are not. They remain strictly past participles. So the otherwise equivalent statements "I am puzzled" and "I am stumped" are to be reviled and spit on as loathsome passive-voice forms, while "I am confused" is given a hero's welcome, ticker-tape parade and all.

In the end, passive voice is not just simply a be verb plus a past participle. It's a past participle that's not also considered an adjective.

  • "Good" Grammar: Be verb plus a past participle that has been granted full adjective status.
  • "Bad" Grammar: Be verb plus a past participle that hasn't yet been granted full adjective status.

Unfortunately, dictionaries and word processor grammar checks disagree on what past participles have obtained full adjective status, making this distinction quite arbitrary, if not downright bogus.

Active Isn't Always Better

Even if I deny a past participle full adjective status, it's not clear that rewriting the sentence in active voice always improves things. Consider the active-voice counterparts to the Squid Approved! sentences above.

As you can see, (a) active voice didn't improve a thing, and (b) it is not true that active voice is inherently less wordy and less clumsy.

So What's the Rule?

For those of you who can't breathe without rules, here are a couple of suggestions that I think simplify things.

1. Scratch "use the active voice" and "prefer the active voice." The vigorous writing they promise is a worthy pursuit, but there are just too many exceptions to make that possible. Their unwavering tone stifles freedom of action and, therefore, good writing. Instead, use whichever voice makes the most sense, the voice that makes the sentence clearer.

2. If you have trouble with that, there is a better, simpler rule for avoiding one type of truly bad passive-voice construction.* When you find yourself adding the phrase "by the actor" to your passive-voice sentence, you should seriously consider the active voice. In other words, if you feel compelled to tell us that it was the citizens of Obviousville who elected Smith mayor, then you need to go with the active-voice version.

Here's your rule:

Squid's Passive Proscription – If your sentence is of the form: The receiver is/was actioned by the actor, consider changing it to: The actor actioned the receiver.

“John was bitten by Mrs. Harris’s dog.” Bad passive voice…

“Mrs. Harris’s dog bit John.” made better using active voice.

Of course, this rule is not without its exceptions. The red flag goes up with "Bill was smitten by Barb." But the active-voice counterpart, "Barb smote Bill," is of no help, since it changes the meaning.

Sometimes, even when we want to identify the actor, the emphasis is best placed on the receiver. "Your brother was struck by a parked car this afternoon." Placing the emphasis on her brother rather than the parked car shows that you care, thus obscuring the fact that you think her brother is an idiot.

And really, what's so wrong with something like "I am intrigued by your fear of the passive voice"?

* I have no rule for the most dreadful manifestation of passive voice—where the author, for whatever reason, steadfastly refuses to identify the actor when it needs to be identified. Significantly, this is the culprit that gets Army Chiefs of Staff and their ilk all afroth.

This article satisfies Squid Commo Objective (SCO) #1**

- Provide protection from grammar bullies

** I also think my passive proscription satisfies SCO #2, but in light of Barb smiting Bill, I'll abandon that claim.