The passive voice can be used

I’m trying to be pretty rigorous in evaluating my students’ writing, but one thing I’m not telling them is to avoid the passive voice. I think that the avoid-the-passive rule, despite its popularity among writing teachers and in usage guides, is pretty much a superstition. It’s a marginally more worthwhile rule than other superstitions such as avoiding split infinitives, but only marginally.

Lots of people disagree with me about this, as I found when I participated in a big discussion of this on my brother’s Facebook wall recently. (I also seem to end up discussing the Oxford comma with surprising frequency on Facebook. No doubt once this information gets out I’ll be deluged with friend requests.) So I was glad to see this spirited defense of the passive by linguist Geoffrey Pullum recently.

Pullum also wrote a blistering¬†takedown of Strunk and White a while back. I had mixed feelings about that one, but I think he’s got things write in the passive-voice piece.

Scientists are often taught to write in the passive in order to de-emphasize the role of the experimenter. You’re supposed to say “The samples were collected” instead of “We collected the samples,” because it’s not supposed to matter who did the collecting. Personally, I think this is another superstition, roughly equal in silliness to the no-passive-voice superstition. Ignore them both, and write whatever sounds best. (In most cases like the above, ¬†I think that the active-voice construction ends up sounding more natural.)

I have heard one cogent argument in favor of teaching the avoid-the-passive rule: even if write-whatever-sounds-better is a superior rule, it’s not one that most inexperienced writers are capable of following. They need firm rules, even if those rules are just heuristics which they’ll later outgrow.

There’s some truth in this, and as long as we’re all clear that avoid-the-passive is a sometimes useful heuristic, as opposed to a firm rule, I have no major objections. But there are so many exceptions to this rule that I’m not convinced it’s all that good even as a heuristic. As Pullum points out, Orwell’s essay warning against the passive is itself 20% passive.

At least in the case of my students, overuse of the passive doesn’t seem like one of the top priorities to address. If I’m looking for heuristics to help them improve their writing, this one wouldn’t be near the top of the list. Here are two better ones that come immediately to mind:

  • Cut out all intensifiers (“very”, “extremely”, etc.), unless you have a good reason for them.
  • If you feel the need to include a qualifier like “As I mentioned earlier,” then the sentence in question probably doesn’t need to be there at all.
(Rules like these can be hard to follow. I initially wrote “a very good reason” in the first one, for instance.)

Addenda: Libby rightly points out “In other words” as a marker for the sort of thing I’m talking about in the second “rule.” A couple more I’d add to the list:

  • Don’t use fancy words for their own sake, especially if you’re in any doubt about the word’s precise meaning. Plain, familiar words are just fine.
  • Read your work aloud. Often, a sentence that look OK on the page sounds unnatural when you hear it.
  • If you’ve got a really long paragraph (at a rough guess, greater than about 200 words), chances are that you’ve muddled together several different ideas, each of which deserves its own paragraph.
One final point, emphasized by Pullum: An additional problem with teaching the avoid-the-passive rule is that most people don’t find grammar intuitive and don’t even recognize passive constructions correctly a lot of the time. (This is the place where his takedown of Strunk and White is most compelling. Even they get it wrong most of the time.) The avoid-the-passive rule seems to be meant as a simple proxy for more difficult rules, but it’s not even simple for most people in the target group.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

7 thoughts on “The passive voice can be used”

  1. The reason to avoid the passive is that it obscures agency. If you want to know who did something, then you need to avoid it. If it doesn’t matter who did it, or you don’t know, then the passive works fine–but in the second case, maybe you should first figure out who did it and then decide if it matters or not.

    So I’d say my general rule for improving writing is : can I tell who did what to whom? If not, revise. But “avoid passives” without giving a reason for it is not going to teach anyone anything.

    As for your rule #2, above, my pet peeve is “in other words…” If you need other words to explain something, why not just use those other words?

  2. Very nicely put.

    In science writing, one often hears that the “who” in “who did what to whom” doesn’t matter. Some people like to maintain the fictional view of science as completely impersonal. They regard the fact that the passive voice obscures the “who” as a feature rather than a bug. I think this is silly. The sentence “The samples were collected” sounds unnatural because the reader is used to being told who did something. Even if it doesn’t matter in this instance who did it, the reader gets momentarily distracted by the oddity of not being told.

    You’re right about “In other words …” being a good example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. I admit to using “In other words” sometimes, when I think there’s actual value in saying the same thing two different ways. But in at least some cases I’m probably wrong about that and am guilty of unnecessary repetitiveness.

  3. Oooh, shall we talk about how lawyer’s write poorly next? Last night my facebook law friends and I debated the use of “shall” versus “will” in contracts and other documentes we draft. The best advise I ever received on writing came from a professor at Georgetown law to avoid the use of “this”, “that”, “it” and other words that do not clearly identify the subject matter of your sentence. Unfortunately, my profession loves “henceforth”, Witnesseth”, “heretofore”, and other similar english language atrocities.

  4. “I also seem to end up discussing the Oxford comma with surprising frequency”

    On which side? Generally, avoid it, due to analogy: “red and blue” (no-one would say “red, and blue” (unless it is to signify a pause (this is often the case with Joyce, whose punctuation is less grammatical and more an indication of how long to pause)), thus “yellow, red and blue”. There are exceptions for clarity, as illustrated by the hapless (not only grammatically) student who dedicated his thesis to “my parents, God and L. Ron Hubbard”.

    The passive voice was discussed In The Dark and at the e-astronomer a while back, in the context of scientific papers.

    I agree that avoiding it as a matter of principle is not good, but I also don’t like people who use it because “otherwise it looks like I’m showing off”. Apart from the fact that the whole point of a scientific paper is to show off (otherwise, why not publish them anonymously—even if you can think of reasons not to, why not have the bibliography leave out the author(s), since the rest is enough to locate the paper), it is just as silly to avoid the first person as a matter of principle as it is to avoid the passive voice as a matter of principle.

    Multi-author papers can just use “we” and let the reader worry about whether this is the royal “we”, whether it refers to all authors or whether the reader is included. In a single-author paper, only the last one is valid in my view (the royal “we” is possible here, but also silly): “if we differentiate Eq. 2” etc. Otherwise, I think using whatever is natural is the best.

  5. Oxford comma discussions on Facebook tend to arise because someone has rediscovered the several very funny examples of ambiguities caused by its absence. My favorites are the newspaper article that mentions “Merle Haggards two ex-wives, Robert Duvall and Kris Kristofferson” and the (apocryphal) book dedicated to “my parents, Mother Teresa and God.”

    Presumably there are examples where the inclusion of the Oxford comma causes rather than eliminating ambiguity, although I don’t know of any

    I use the Oxford comma myself, but in truth I’m not dogmatic about it, except in cases like the above where it removes ambiguity.

    The “we / I” thing in scientific papers is another tricky one. In my Ph.D. dissertation I used the “royal we,” but one of my committee members rightly criticized me for it.

    Even in single-author papers, though, I think “we differentiate eq. 2” is the right thing to say. I don’t think of that as the royal we; rather, I think that “we” in a sentence like that means “you, dear reader, and I.” In prose like that, I (the author) am walking you (the reader) through the derivation. We’re doing it together.

  6. For what it’s worth, I agree with you about the use of the passive voice. Going overboard one way or the other seems wrong to me. Along with everyone else who took lab science classes, I learned to use the passive voice there; it seems to be a tradition; and I’m not sure I find anything wrong with that necessarily, though sometimes it seems to go overboard.

    I prefer the Oxford comma, because I frequently find that sentences can be confusing without it.

    I tend to use a lot of large words in conversation, so I use them in my writing as well. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  7. Large words are good if used by someone that nows the meaning of what they are saying, not to just make themselves look more intellegent. But going overboard with it does seem wrong. Great post!

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