Getting Aggressive with the Passive

At the risk of sounding passive-aggressive, I have a bone to pick. You see, I work with a lot of government and scientific writers. So I see acronyms, abbreviations, bureaucratic language, technical jargon, and long sentences on a daily basis. They don’t scare me.

I’ve fought the dragons of conjunctions at the beginning of sentences, wrestled prepositions at their end, and beaten back commas with more fortitude than you can shake a stick at. And for the most part, my writers and I have found a happy medium.

woman screamingBut if there’s one area of language that I just can’t seem to put behind me, it’s the passive voice. And before you skip away to the next blog, certain you’ve heard this debate before – oh yes, my supervisor / graduate advisor / copyeditor told me never to use the passive. It’s wordy and boring. It leaves the reader feeling that your prose is limp and lifeless. I’ve eliminated it from my repertoire –  

I advocate its use.

The passive has a place in our language. I would just like to see us all writing a little more responsibly. And that problem has not been eliminated by outlawing the passive, even though the passive does allow the agent of the action to disappear from the sentence, like this:

John gave me the book.                        ACTIVE

The book was given to me by John.       PASSIVE w/ agent

The book was given to me by John.       PASSIVE w/o agent  

The book was given to me.                   PASSIVE w/o agent

Legitimately, the agent’s disappearance has in the past caused an uproar. But it might be acceptable if the topic of our discourse were the book. If John were ancillary, we would want to put him second, perhaps even leave him out of the conversation altogether.

Maybe I don’t know who gave me the book. I have a book in my possession, but I didn’t buy it or find it – it was GIVEN to me. Then the emphasis is properly upon the action of giving, not the agent of that action.

sulky gorillaWhen the passive becomes problematic it is because the agent disappears in some way that feels uncomfortable to the reader. But passive constructions are certainly not the only ways that agents can be disguised. Present progressives and nominalizations often accomplish the same thing. (A nominalization occurs when a perfectly good verb get shanghaied to perform as some other part of speech, like an adjective or a noun, where it sits like a sulky gorilla, obstructing the reader’s otherwise perfectly good view of the action.)

Consider this passage from Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson:

For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact  with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.  In the less than two decades of their use, the synthetic pesticides have been so thoroughly distributed throughout the animate and inanimate world that they occur virtually everywhere. They have  been recovered from most of the major river systems and even from streams of groundwater flowing unseen through the earth. Residues of these chemicals linger in soil to which they may have been applied a dozen years before. They have entered and lodged in the bodies of fish, birds, reptiles, and domestic and wild animals so universally that scientists carrying on animal experiments find it almost impossible to locate subjects free from such contamination. They have been found in fish and remote mountain lakes, in earthworms burrowing in soil, in the eggs of birds—and in man himself.  For these chemicals are now stored in the bodies of the vast majority of human beings, regardless of age.  They occur in the mother’s milk, and probably in the tissues of the unborn child.  

(passive constructions noted thus)

Nothing about this paragraph feels limp, listless, lacking in anima, or inert. Yet a full 40% of
this passage is written in the grammatical construction we call passive. (And shame on the editors, instructors, and pedants who first equivocated between the two!)

As I alluded to, present progressives and nominalizations, even when written in the active form, can feel boring and incomprehensible. Take the following sentence for example:

The effect of the closing of a portion of the gaming floor, some retail outlets and restaurants, along with the related clean up, was a significant decrease in overall casino traffic during these  periods. 

bugs bunny Decrease is simply desperate to move into the spotlight. You know it’s coming. It’s standing there like Bugs Bunny in the corner of a shadowed doorway with a carrot in its mouth and a top hat on its head, brim lowered over the eyes, waiting to step out and start tap dancing across the front of this sentence. Does the writer seriously believe we don’t know the casino lost money? As a subject and verb pair, the effect … was, with 21 words of separation is deeply unsatisfying, leaving the audience hungry for the show.

The aforementioned sentence is from a Management Discussion and Analysis. Those are the reports accompanying financial statements mandated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. And before I went to graduate school to study English, I was an accountant, and I had a hand in drafting a few of these beasts.

One in particular was for a dot com company. Remember those? Well this one was right in the
middle of that bubble and just as it was about to burst, we were writing sentences like this one (I’m paraphrasing):

Contracts with key employees have not been signed.

Cash is hemorrhaging at an alarming rate.

The first of those sentences is indeed in the passive voice. The agent of the action – whoever should have been signing those contracts – is not in the sentence. And the reason is obvious. Why didn’t we say we? Well because then someone would have to take responsibility for this omission, and I think we’re seeing today how concerned our nation is that Wall Street and all those who answer to it finally take responsibility.

But the second sentence – that’s written in the present progressive. The agent of that action is cash. Still, the sentence is elusive, because someone is allowing that to happen, and that someone has not been named.

You see, there are all kinds of ways to evade responsibility. The passive voice is just one of them.

So here’s my philosophy. Let’s keep all of what we write responsible. We do that by using the active voice (some of the time), by setting nominalizations free to be verbs whenever possible, and by keeping subjects and verbs close together. When we know the agent of the action, and when that agent matters, name it. Employ the active or the passive in a way that lends rhythm, passion, and purpose to your language.

It may sound a little more aggressive than passive, but I think in the end it will lead to more active, responsible communication, and ultimately a more harmonious society.

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of
misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Final thought from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Note the passive


  1. This is the best explanation I’ve seen of putting passive voice (and passive behavior) in perspective.

  2. Informative, opinionated and enjoyable, thanks.

  3. LM

    Hope you don’t mind my abbreviation of your name. Feel free to correct me. I LOVE your essay. I also love to explore grammar.

    You may enjoy my blog,
    I would love your comment on my July, 2010 story: A pause for the comma.

    Anyway, I enjoy your writing, your thinking, and your positive spirit.
    Blessings to you,

  4. This is a beautiful piece to read. It’s full of colour, pace and wit. I had no idea the passive voice was so maligned.
    The passive is said to be less effective in copywriting when calling a reader to action but it certainly enhances a reader’s experience when set in prose.

    Now please may I have an example of nominilisation?
    ‘Getting shanghaied’ looks like a noun being used as a verb.

    Being reminded of the wonderful words of Rachel Carson makes me want to hit the ‘Amazon-Buy Now!’ button.

    Thank you for a delightful experience.

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