The supposed sins of the passive voice (part 2 — when the passive voice is better than the active, or at least as good)

I blogged a short while ago about some people’s tendency to mislabel usages they dislike as “passive voice.” But even phrases that really are in the passive voice are often better than their active-voice equivalents, or at least no worse. A Chronicle of Higher Education item by Geoff Pullum of Language Log captures the point well; here’s an excerpt:

Mistakes Are Made (but Using the Passive Isn’t One of Them)

Writing tutors, teaching assistants, usage columnists  and even word-processor grammar-checkers flag passives for “correction” because they have been told they should. (The disastrously confused Page 18 of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is often implicated — but don’t get me started on them.) These critics are often clearly inexpert at accurate identification of what they deprecate: collecting published critical comments about the passive by soi-disant rhetoric gurus, I have found that the most frequently occurring score for telling passives from actives is zero (I put this extraordinary statistic aside to discuss another day). Naturally, the critics also have no idea how many they use themselves.

Recently a colleague and friend with an American doctoral degree did me the kindness of commenting on a draft of mine. She made many solid suggestions that I accepted. But, en passant, she cast a disapproving eye on a couple of passive clauses (correctly identified, I should note), and stressed that she herself tried to avoid passives. I was very grateful for the latter: an empirical claim by a self-identified passive avoider! My colleague, you see, has an excellent and well-written book to her name — a record that could be checked. More on that later.

The piece I was writing — a sad task — was an obituary. In one sentence I explained how I had met the deceased: “I was introduced to her while she was visiting California.” My helpful colleague asked: “Why the passive? What’s wrong with ‘We met …’?” — and the answer is: Nothing at all, except that it omits the very thing I was saying, namely that this was an actual old-fashioned introduction, not a random encounter in an airport bar. So I ignored that well-intended advice.

The second passive my colleague fingered was this (which actually has a pair of them): “But all plans were disrupted when she was diagnosed in December 2010 with metastasized and inoperable terminal cancer.” The critical comment was:

Again, this is passive voice. Maybe appropriate here, I guess, but in general, I try to avoid the passive.

I was genuinely amazed. Am I seriously supposed to say “But an unexpected eventuality disrupted all plans”? And “when an oncologist named Price diagnosed her …”?

More generally, do the writing tutors of the world really think we should not report that a politician has been shot until we can specify the gunman? Do they honestly think it’s wrong to say that the lights are left on all night in an office building without supplying a list of the individuals who controlled the switches? We really have to get over this superstitious horror about passives. It’s gone beyond a joke….

It seems to me that passive voice is indeed often bad, for three reasons: (1) It tends to be less engaging, (2) it usually adds a few more words and some extra grammatical complexity, and (3) it sometimes obscures who’s actually doing something. “The dog was bitten by the man” is an example of passive voice bringing less verve, and requiring more words, than the active. “Mistakes were made” is the cliche example of passive voice as obfuscation or barrier to analysis.

But sometimes passive voice is just fine, especially when you want to focus on the object of the action rather than on the actor. Here’s an example from my own editing experience — a draft read,

Neither we nor the government need sit idle when evil ideas are spread.

and someone suggested that it be changed to (more or less),

Neither we nor the government need sit idle when people or groups spread evil ideas.

The original was in the active voice at the outset, but the “when” clause was in the passive. The replacement is entirely in the active.

But is the new version really better? It’s actually a bit longer and more complex, because it adds a reference to the actor. The addition isn’t just a single word, but the phrase “people or groups.” The new phrase is relatively bloodless, and I suspect somewhat less vivid than “evil ideas.”

More importantly, the new phrase needlessly shifts the reader’s focus from the substantively important noun phrase — the “evil ideas,” which are the reason that we must act rather than sitting idle —  to the less significant “people or groups” that spread the ideas.

Now maybe there’s some other value to the edit that I’m missing. But I do think that the partly passive original is more effective than the wholly active replacement. Some clauses are best written in the passive voice, some in the active. Even if there is a slight general preference for the active, it should at most be a slight preference, not a rigid rule or even a powerful presumption.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy. Before coming to UCLA, he clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court and for Judge Alex Kozinski on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Volokh is the author of the textbooks The First Amendment and Related Statutes (4th ed. 2011), The Religion Clauses and Related Statutes (2005), and Academic Legal Writing (4th ed. 2010), as well as over 70 law review articles. Volokh is also an Academic Affiliate for the Mayer Brown LLP law firm.
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Eugene Volokh | May 12