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Passive Voice:

A recent usage thread turned to the old question of the passive voice. Many people recommend that you turn the passive voice -- "The action was done by this person" (the object was verbed by the subject) or just "The action was done" -- into the active voice, "This person did this action" (the subject verbed the object).

This is generally good advice. Passive voice often makes writing less direct and thus less forceful: "Passive voice should be avoided by you" is worse than "Avoid the passive voice." It also sometimes conceals responsibility, as in the famous "Mistakes were made" used as a substitute for "We made mistakes."

But when it comes to writing, unwise editors often turn good general advice into a bad categorical rule. So it is here: "Generally avoid the passive voice" is good, "never use the passive voice" is bad.

In particular, if your discussion focuses more on the object than on the subject (the actor), it's often better to use the passive voice, which has a similar focus. If you're writing about the substance of the USA Patriot Act, for instance, the passive sentence "The Act was adopted shortly after the September 11 attacks" may be better than the active "Congress adopted the Act shortly after the September 11 attacks." The passive voice properly focuses the discussion on the Act, where you want it to be, rather than on Congress, which is not terribly relevant to your thesis. (Of course, if you were writing about Congressional decisionmaking related to the Act, "Congress adopted ..." may be exactly right -- but again the point is to choose the voice that fits what you want to emphasize, not to mechanically make everything active.)

FantasiaWHT:
In my last legal brief (1L here) I made three specific and intentional uses of the passive voice to re-focus the sentence to where I wanted the reader's attention. My professor "corrected" all three of them. She made so many "corrections" of what were stylistic choices (actually marking them as mistakes) that I'm doubting her credibility as both teacher and author.
4.5.2007 5:14pm
KeithK (mail):
Exactly.
4.5.2007 5:18pm
arthur (mail):
For extreme passive voice, check out the United States Constitution. Articles I-IV all begin with passive sentences.
4.5.2007 5:19pm
itshissong:
Thank you so much for blogging about this. I can't stand the reflexive hate of the passive voice that so many people seem to have.
4.5.2007 5:34pm
jp2 (mail):
Fantasia -- Was your writing professor a full-time writing professor, a full-time professor whose specialty was a traditional law-school subject, an adjunct professor, or an upper-level law student? I'm curious. Thanks.
4.5.2007 5:36pm
Aultimer:
Passive voice, "myself" when "me" would do, and similar sins are most offensive when they're used in a style of affected formality - I think the idea is to "sound" more intelligent or sophisticated, but can have the opposite effect - like a fake British accent.
4.5.2007 5:41pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Itshissong: the problem is that many people use the passive voice consciously or unconsciously to conceal or obscure the issue of who was undertaking the action, or even to conceal or obscure the fact that anyone was taking the action. The passive voice can make it seem as if the action just happened, like earthquakes or melting ice, when in fact someone was responsible.
4.5.2007 5:41pm
elChato (mail):
Great post, EV. Part of my proofreading process includes scouring my briefs for uses of the passive voice and minimizing it. Sometimes however it is the best way to phrase something. This ain't Hemingway.
4.5.2007 5:42pm
elChato (mail):
David, sometimes mistakes are made.
4.5.2007 5:53pm
M:
The passive voice should sometimes be used.
4.5.2007 5:59pm
neurodoc:
David, sometimes mistakes are made.
Of course, they are made all the time. (non-obfuscatory use of the passive voice) If we have even a casual interest in the matter, don't we usually want to know who made them?
4.5.2007 6:04pm
T_C:
Reflexive rejection of passive voice is a peeve of mine. Another example of proper use is when you don't know the actor, or the identity of the actor is immaterial. If you are describing a transaction to a regulatory body, "The transaction was booked incorrectly." sounds more straightforward, and IMO less evasive, than "Accounting personnel improperly booked the transaction." or worse yet "Someone misbooked the transaction."
4.5.2007 6:10pm
18 USC 1030 (mail):
Or if your client did something that you don't want to emphasize, but must mention, the passive voice is better than the active voice. Example, my client killed the victim...or, the victim was killed by my client. Obviously neither are statements you ever want to have to make, but for less significant things the passive voice is helpful.
4.5.2007 6:13pm
Dave N (mail):
18 USC 1030: The proper approach is "The victim was killed." Let the other side identify who did it.

But overall, I agree with EV. There is a place for passive voice. But we should use the passive voice sparingly.
4.5.2007 6:20pm
dearieme:
In your example there is no doubt who 'adopted' the Act - 'twas Congress. But the passive is often used as a low way of avoiding responsibility for decisions, advice or action. Abjure it, I say. Or do I mean eschew it?
4.5.2007 6:49pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Dearieme: It is sometimes used the way you describe. But that hardly seems to be reason to always or even generally avoid the passive, though it is reason to avoid it in those situations where it's inapt.
4.5.2007 6:56pm
Andrew Okun:
As a young courthouse journalist years back, I often used the passive voice in leads because the person it was getting done to was considerably more newsworthy that who was doing it to. "Former Lincoln S&L head Charles Keating was sentenced to 10 years in prison today for doing old people out of their savings." Perhaps it wasn't exactly that but you get the idea. It is fine to say "A federal judge today sentenced ... " as well, and the passive form still has its inclination to weakness, but it is perfectly permissible and might leave more room in the sentence for other material.
4.5.2007 6:58pm
Andrew Okun:
My favorite writing advice came from George Orwell, who had five rules including "Never use the passive where you can use the active" but added a sixth rule ... "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."
4.5.2007 7:00pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
"The adoption of the Patriot Act followed quickly on the heels of the September 11 attacks." When you find yourself using the passive voice, regardless of context, there is almost always a better way to express what your saying. I agree that simply flipping object and subject is not necessarily the best solution. But generally speaking, a little thought will provide a better construction.
4.5.2007 7:06pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
DaveN: No, no, no. It's "The victim died." (Why concede anyone did it? Make the other side prove that, too.) Or, even better, "Mr. Smith died." (Don't concede he was a victim.)
4.5.2007 7:13pm
18 USC 1030 (mail):
Dave squared...that was a terrible example, but I thought the point would be obvious...
4.5.2007 7:16pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"Former Lincoln S&L head Charles Keating was sentenced to 10 years in prison today…"

How about: The former S&L head Charles Keating received a ten-year prison sentence for cheating …"
4.5.2007 7:20pm
Andrew Okun:
How about: The former S&L head Charles Keating received a ten-year prison sentence for cheating …"

That is fine, too, but I think it is fine because it contains all the information it needs and is clear about it. I don't think it gains much from, technically, being active. The public official who screws up and says, "mistakes were made" is being just as mealy-mouthed if he uses the active "mistakes occured" or "subsequent events revealed errors."

The choice can also focus meaning in other ways. If I say "Scooter Libby was indicted for allegedly shuffling a deck of cards, Patrick Fitzgerald announced" I am starting off on a slightly different footing than "A federal grand jury indicted Scooter Libby for allegedly shuffling a deck of cards." If I don't like Libby or want to defend Fitzgerald against a charge of prosecutorial bias, I'd go for the latter, letting the word "jury" conjure in the readers mind a panel of ordinary citizens deciding that charges should be brought.

Best of all is if someone opens up a little and helps make the choice for you. "A federal judge sentenced Joe Jones to 10 years in prison today, labelling the disgraced S&L chief 'a gangrenous limb that needs to be sawn off society before the infection spreads too far and the stench overwhelms us all."
"I'm gonna do the job and this clothes-pin on my nose isn't getting in my way," growled US District Judge Fred etc.
4.5.2007 7:41pm
Andrew Okun:
The adoption of the Patriot Act followed quickly on the heels of the September 11 attacks.

I wouldn't suggest this change as a way of avoiding the weaknesses of the passive voice. It is good for other things, but it doesn't remedy the source of weakness in the simpler "The Patriot Act was passed ... " which is no mention of who wrote, proposed, passed, backed, criticized, signed or implemented the thing. But it adds a meaning, "quickly on the heels" suggests, without explaining, some element of speed or hastiness. If you want to add that meaning, then it is good, but you want to be careful adding meanings while trying to avoid an otherwise fine sentence construction.
4.5.2007 7:52pm
The Emperor (www):
A great post. I'm sick of people correcting my passive voice where I've used it for the exact reasons you describe.
4.5.2007 8:01pm
frankcross (mail):
I'm sure someone has an instance of when a law review editor demanded alteration of a quotation of the constitutional text in order to eliminate the passive voice.
4.5.2007 8:04pm
Dave N (mail):
David M.Nieporent (the other Dave N who posts here): Touche. You are absolutely right. Don't concede anything.

18 U.S.C. 1030: Your point was obvious--and a good one. I was merely having a little bit of fun.

Indeed, I deliberately used the passive voice in the second paragraph of that post--and no one noticed ("There is place for passive voice").

We agree on the substance.
4.5.2007 8:18pm
Peter Wimsey:
I agree that there is a place for the passive voice (although this is not a passive sentence) - in places where the actor isn't important or, better, would distract from the overall point.

"Defendant was convicted of three counts of unlawful sexual contact with livestock within 1000 feet of a CAFO, a Class C felony" is better than "The jury convicted Defendant of..." because the crucial parts of the sentence are the conviction, the crime, and the penalty. It doesn't matter - in this case - that the jury did the convicting...and so that fact is extraneous and best left out. (Obviously, if for some reason it were important that the jury did the convicting, it would be a mistake to use the passive...)

However, while I recognize that the passive does have it's place, in my experience it is still overused...
4.5.2007 8:46pm
Eric Jablow (mail):
It bothers me when newspapers report, "John Doe, 17, was shot and killed." This makes it seem like a law of nature that people will be shot and killed. It desensitizes the readers to the problems of violence.
4.5.2007 8:54pm
Bleepless (mail):
Richard Mitchell's The Leaning Tower of Babel includes a sustained and entertaining assault on the passive voice. He sees it as a moral issue.
4.5.2007 11:06pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):

The adoption of the Patriot Act followed quickly on the heels of the September 11 attacks.

I wouldn't suggest this change as a way of avoiding the weaknesses of the passive voice. It is good for other things, but it doesn't remedy the source of weakness in the simpler "The Patriot Act was passed ... " which is no mention of who wrote, proposed, passed, backed, criticized, signed or implemented the thing. But it adds a meaning, "quickly on the heels" suggests, without explaining, some element of speed or hastiness. If you want to add that meaning, then it is good, but you want to be careful adding meanings while trying to avoid an otherwise fine sentence construction.


The original example already included the element of speed: "The Act was adopted shortly after the September 11 attacks." One problem with the passive voice is that it often hides the actor. Another problem lies simply in its passivity. Reading the passive voice is boring. My rewrite of the example tried only to move the sense of the original to the active voice without adding the actor.
4.5.2007 11:39pm
wooga:
In particular, if your discussion focuses more on the object than on the subject (the actor), it's often better to use the passive voice, which has a similar focus.

I think of the Iraq war news, where we see things like "10 people were killed," rather than "bombers killed 10 people." In this context, the use of passive voice serves not to focus on the victims, but rather to deemphasize the bombers.

Of course passive voice is sometimes useful (I used it extensively in my philosophy writings out of necessity), but more often than not passive voice is used to push an agenda rather than facts. It gives much more freedom to describe an event while omitting undesirable key facts.
4.6.2007 12:13am
Qwertz (mail):
My school's writing program has a blanket ban on PV. The asserted motive is to force us to control our writing. Most of the instructors (attorneys in practice) ignore the ban, but still require that we mark PV as such, to show that we at least are able to recognize it. Unfortunately, one of my instructors was unable to tell the difference between PV and the perfect tenses.

-Q
4.6.2007 1:31am
Visitor Again:
If you're writing about the substance of the USA Patriot Act, for instance, the passive sentence "The Act was adopted shortly after the September 11 attacks" may be better than the active "Congress adopted the Act shortly after the September 11 attacks."

Rarely, if ever, does the intended focus of a sentence force one to use the unattractive passive voice. Thus "The Patriot Act's adoption came shortly after the September 11 attacks" avoids the passive voice while still maintaining the intended focus.

"The adoption of the Patriot Act followed quickly on the heels of the September 11 attacks."

This is verbose because "on the heels of" means "followed quickly." Moreover, "The Patriot Act's adoption" reads more easily than "The adoption of the Patriot Act" because it eliminates a prepositional phrase.

So make it "The Patriot Act's adoption came on the heels of the September 11 attacks" or "The Patriot Act's adoption quickly followed the September 11 attacks."
4.6.2007 5:40am
Don (mail):

So make it "The Patriot Act's adoption came on the heels of the September 11 attacks" or "The Patriot Act's adoption quickly followed the September 11 attacks."

Sorry, guys, this still doesn't make it in my book. It violates another useful principle by replacing a verb with a noun, and here it's a noun we're not even concerned about ("adoption", when what EV's original passive sentence was talking about was the Patriot Act). The original sentence was quite clear and expressed the author's meaning with a minimum of words. The only thing this rewrite does is to solve the supposed problem of the passive voice. It does not make the sentence clearer or more compact. Since the PV should not be viewed as always and everywhere a problem, the cost in the form of nouning up the sentence exceeds the benefit; as Fowler asked after canvassing various acrobatic ways to avoid splitting an infinitive, was the game worth the candle?

The real problem behind EV's complaint, though, is not just some rule or principle about the passive voice; it is the elevation of sensible principles and rules of thumb into mandatory rules that are applied dogmatically and with no sensitivity for the language.
4.6.2007 7:56am
Luis (mail) (www):
Thank you, thank you, thank you and shout AMEN!

The active voice does one thing. The passive voice does another. You use the one that does what you want. Right? When I go to fix something in my house, or my car, I don't have a rule that says "Never use an oil-filter wrench." Sometimes I have an oil filter that needs wrenchin'!
4.6.2007 10:45am
A.C.:
Everybody needs to obfuscate at times.

The Iraq example is interesting. Passive voice does put the emphasis on the victims rather than on the bombers, as wooga notes. I intend to keep an eye on this, as I am becoming very annoyed at the victim-centered trend in news coverage. Where have all the perpetrators gone? Covering only the victims is sob-sister stuff, and the only way they'll stop selling it is if we stop buying.
4.6.2007 11:36am
Matthew B. (mail):
Dave N: Huh? "There is a place for passive voice" isn't passive. The verb there is is, which is active.
4.6.2007 12:05pm
Mark P. (mail):
Could we please proceed to a discussion of the split infinitive?
4.6.2007 12:54pm
TRE:
The passive voice should be avoided.
4.6.2007 12:59pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
4.6.2007 2:31pm
mikemt:
Of course, accepatibility of passive vicoe depends partly on the objective of the writing.

I often recommend my students (in Engineering, not Law) to avoid passive voice in reports:
* experiments were made
* a computer program was written

I usually want to know <i>who</i> conducted the experiment and <i>who</i> wrote the computer program - the student who wrote the report or someone else?

If any of my students wrote "mistakes were made", I'd expect the next sentences to explain the nature and impact of the mistakes, and how future mistakes would be avoided.
4.6.2007 3:54pm
Amy (mail):
I just had this revelation the other day: to get rid of the passive voice, consider the subject of the sentence. If you don't want to emphasize the subject, keep the passive voice. Otherwise, use active (generally). people probably think that is obvious, but it definitely wasn't to me. Hallalujah my passive voice problems are solved!:)
4.6.2007 6:16pm
Aleks:
This really has to do with a grammatical distinction with neither English nor any other Indoeuropean language that I am aware of, deals with: the distinction between Topic (what the sentence is about) and Comment (what is being said about the topic). We are locked into the rigidity of subject-object distinctions, but other languages care more about the topic-comment distinction. Some, like Japanese, even have a topic-inflection to mark a noun (or pronoun) as the topic regardless of whether it is a subject or object in our terms. There are also languages where a topic can be indicated by placing it first in word order. This is possible in poetical English, but normal speech and writing demands strict SVO work order. So we are left with the passive voice when we want to indicate that the topic of our sentence is the object (or even indirect object) not the subject. And this should be accepted as valid, at least until we decide to borrow the topicalizing inflection from the Japanese instead.
4.6.2007 11:14pm
Bemac (mail):
I worked for a state education agency. A coworker produced letters sent to school districts with lines like "the form must be returned" and "all requested information must be provided."

When he complained about the level of compliance, I told him to dump the progressive and make it clear what he wanted: "Fill out the form completely" and "Return the form by such-and-such a date."

He objected, saying it sounded like he was telling the school districts what to do. "Of course it does," I said. "You are. Have the decency be clear about it and about what the school district needs to do."

The clearer letter resulted in fewer late forms.

There is a place for the passive, but it is usually the enemy of clarity and brevity.
4.7.2007 8:22pm