Summary: People use the passive voice for many reasons, including fear, ignorance, and intentional obfuscation. Most of the time the active voice is clearer, easier to understand, and more appropriate. Identifying the ‘actor’ and ‘patient’ in the sentence makes it easy to see when a sentence is ‘active’ or ‘passive’
This is quite a long blog post for me, so here are some jump links if you want to skip to a particular section.
- how to spot a passive sentence
- why it’s better to use the active voice rather than the passive voice
- why people write passive sentences (and when it’s actually ok)
One of the tenets of Plain English is that you should normally use the active voice rather than the passive voice. It’s also one of the 5 points in my SCAMP technique for writing better websites.
This is probably the most complicated guideline to understand, as it’s based on the sort of grammar most of us were never taught – or forgot a long time ago.
But never fear, because there’s actually a really simple way of working out whether a sentence is active or passive.
First, a quick reminder of the dreaded grammar.
Almost all sentences in the English language follow the subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. So in the sentence “Jane likes motorbikes” Jane is the subject, likes is the verb and motorbikes is the object. Subject-verb-object. With me so far? Good.
This is an active sentence.
If it were a passive sentence it would read “Motorbikes are liked by Jane”. At this point, a lot of websites will tell you that as the sentence is reversed, the sentence is now in the object-verb-subject (OVS) word order. Which is lovely, but not strictly speaking true.
The OVS version of the sentence would read:
“Motorbikes likes Jane” – which makes no sense in English (although it might if it were translated into Tamil, or in some situations Norwegian or Russian).
Still with me? No? I don’t blame you. But thankfully, the finer points of SVO and OVS can be left to the linguists, because you don’t need to worry about it at all.
How to spot a passive sentence
What you do need to worry about is where the ‘actor’ and the ‘patient’ in the sentence are. If we use the same example, Jane is the actor (or doer) and ‘motorbikes’ is the patient (or target).
Jane is the one doing the action, and ‘motorbikes’ is the thing that is having the action done to it.
In the passive, Jane is still the one doing the action, and ‘motorbikes’ is still the thing that is having the action done to it. So who cares where the subject and object are? Because, we know that the actor and the patient stay the same, where-ever they end up in the sentence.
Patient first = passive
Isn’t that easier?
So why does it matter?
It matters because active sentences are easier to understand. All that confusion about SVO and OVS word order at the top of the blog comes about because we are so used to the subject and the actor being the same thing.
The first sentences we learn in school are simple sentences where the actor is the subject. And schools teach these simple sentences first, because they are the easiest for us to understand.
We talk about passive sentences having a reversed word order because we instinctively feel that they are written backwards. When we hear a sentence in the passive voice, we can’t help but try to rearrange it in our heads so we can work out what is going on.
And whenever you have to work out what sentence is actually saying, you have an opportunity for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
Which is bad.
So why do people use the passive voice?
Just to confuse matters, even though you should try to avoid the passive voice most of the time, there are situations where it is useful.
By putting the patient ahead of the actor, the passive voice emphasises the action over the person (or thing) doing the action. So if the action is the most important part of the sentence, then the passive might be a better choice.
This is particularly true when it comes to headlines, headings and subheadings.
“Serial Burglar Jailed for 20 Years” makes a better newspaper headline than “Court Jails Serial Burglar for 25 Years”.
Using the passive voice also allows you to remove the actor from the sentence altogether. You might want to do this because:
You don’t know who the actor is:
e.g. “The car was stolen from outside my office”
It’s not important who the actor is:
e.g. “Drinks will be served at8pm”
Or you want to hide (or minimise) who the actor is:
e.g. “Your laptop got tea spilt on it”
In the first two cases, removing the actor has the effect of removing words that don’t add anything to the sentence
“The car was stolen from outside my office by person or persons unknown”
“drinks will be served by the caterers at 8pm”
But in the 3rd case, the intention is often less altruistic. And here’s where I am taking a stand.
If you remove the actor then you leave it up to the reader/listener to work out who the actor is. Often the intention is that people will assume that the action is entirely unavoidable and would have happened regardless as to who the actor happened to be at that specific moment. “Wages have been reduced” is a lot easier to say than “I have reduced your wages”.
At other times it’s done to lead people to believe that they are the person who gets to do something, when they aren’t. Or to believe that someone else will do something for them, which they later discover that they will have to do themselves.
People use the passive voice like this so they can give out information they want to distance themselves from. To say things without mentioning all the relevant details. To tell someone something, without telling them everything.
It’s a tool used by people who want to hide behind words while claiming open, honest transparency.
When you start to recognise the pattern of a passive sentence, you suddenly notice them popping up all over the place. In management speak, corporate cop-outs, political rhetoric, and in downright, shameful abdications of responsibility.
So that’s why I’m getting passive aggressive, and why you should to.