Passive verbs: why do all writers hate them?

Cartoon of smoking revolver and a sheriff's badge with bullet hole through it

Here’s a famous piece of advice about passive verbs:

“Never use the passive where you can use the active” – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1947

Most corporate style guides rail against the passive, too. But, in my experience, many corporate writers don’t understand, let alone adhere to, the advice to “avoid writing in a passive voice”. (See A great example of why corporate tone of voice guidelines are usually pointless.)

So what, exactly, is the passive? And why did George Orwell (like the writers of so many style guides) object to it?

Before we try to understand passive verbs, let’s start with their opposite: active verbs. Here’s an example of an active sentence:

I shot the sheriff.

This sentence has three elements, in the following order:

  1. The person doing the shooting (I want to avoid confusing grammatical jargon, so let’s call this person the ‘do-er’)
  2. The verb or ‘doing’ word
  3. The the person being shot (again, let’s avoid speaking grammar-nerdish and call them the ‘do-ee’)

So we have:

Do-er: I

Doing word: shot

Do-ee: the sheriff

But we can also express the same idea in a different way – in the passive:

The sheriff was shot by me.

In this version, the order of the three elements is different. It leads with the do-ee – that is, the person who is being shot.

Do-ee: The sheriff

Doing word: was shot

Do-er: (by) me

Passive voice, not passive tense!

Note: the passive and active forms of the verb are not called ‘tenses’, but ‘voices’.

In the ‘sheriff’ example, both the active and the passive forms are in the past tense. But both the active and passive can be used in any tense. For example:

Present tense

Active voice: I shoot the sheriff.

Passive voice: The sheriff is shot by me.

 

Future tense

Active voice: I will shoot the sheriff.

Passive voice: The sheriff will be shot by me.

 

Conditional tense

Active voice: I would shoot the sheriff

Passive voice: The sheriff would be shot by me

And so on…

Reason to avoid passive verbs #1: they make your writing dull, clunky and hard-to-read

Here are some more famous song lyrics. First, in their original active form. Then rewritten in the passive:

Active verb: I can’t get no satisfaction

Passive verb: No satisfaction can’t be got by me

 

Active verb: You make me feel (mighty real)

Passive verb: I am made to feel (mighty real) by you

 

Active verb: If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it

Passive verb: If it was liked by you, then a ring should have been put on it by you

The passive versions don’t quite have the same ring to them as the originals do they? As these examples show, the active form is usually:

Shorter

Simpler

More dynamic

In contrast, the passive form can sound:

Clunkier

More complex

Less lively

Unlike songwriters, many business writers overuse the passive. But it can drain your writing of life, add unnecessary wordage and slow your reader down.

Compare:

Passive verb: A study of modern corporate strategy has been published by the Institute of Experts. (14 words)

With:

Active verb: The Institute of Experts has published a study of modern corporate strategy. (12 words)

As the brilliant orator Winston Churchill once said: What if I had said, instead of ‘we shall fight on the beaches‘, ‘Hostilities will be engaged with our adversary on the coastal perimeter?’.

Reason to avoid passive verbs #2: you can end up leaving out vital information

When you overuse passive verbs, it’s easy to leave out the do-er of the action. This habit can make your writing imprecise and leave your reader with questions.

Let me show you what I mean. Here’s one of those song lyrics again, in its original active voice:

If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it

If we try to remove the do-er from this sentence, we end up with nonsense:

If liked it, then should have put a ring on it (no do-er; not grammatically correct)

Now, let’s look again at the passive version of the same lyric:

If it was liked by you, then a ring should have been put on it by you

If we remove the do-er from this version, the sentence still makes sense:

If it was liked, then a ring should have been put on it (no do-er; still grammatically correct, but leaves me wondering who should have been putting the ring on it?)

The ease with which you can drop the do-er from a passive sentence can cause problems in business writing. Take the following sentence, from a report by a social media consultant:

Topics such as green building, energy saving and eco-friendly interior decoration are being paid more attention on blogs and forums.

In this rather clunky example, the writer has failed to tell us who is interested in the topics of green building and energy saving. It would have been a little more elegant to use the active form. For example, we could say:

Readers are paying more attention on blogs and forums to topics such as green building, energy saving and eco-friendly interior decoration.

Or better still:

Chinese housewives are paying more attention on blogs and forums to topics such as green building, energy saving and eco-friendly interior decoration.

Now, imagine you were this consultant’s client. Imagine, too, you were interested in reaching Chinese housewives through your social media marketing. This statement is gold dust.

Reason to avoid passive verbs #3: they can make you seem cold and impersonal (not a good look in business)

Passive verbs can be useful if you want to emphasise the action rather than the actor – for example, in the following circumstances:

  1. When the do-er is irrelevant because the action is a general statement that applies to us all:
    Drugs should be stored away from children
  2. When the do-er is less important than the action itself – as in some scientific writing:
    The sodium chloride was dissolved in water

These two examples could reveal the reason so many business writers overuse passive verbs: they think removing the do-er gives their writing an objective, quasi-scientific air. Hardly surprising, really, given that’s the way most of us learned to write at school.

But by leaving out the do-er in a business document, you’re not just leaving your reader with unanswered questions (see reason 2, above). You’re also making your writing less concrete and specific. You’re taking the people out of the picture. And so you’re missing an opportunity to tell a human story.

As the old saying goes, businesses don’t do business with businesses. They do business with people – with all their quirks, emotions and unscientific drives.

So to connect better with customers, clients and employees, avoid the passive if you can.

Reason to avoid passive verbs #4: they can make you sound evasive and untrustworthy

Passive verbs can also be useful if you can’t – or don’t want to – reveal the person behind the action. For example:

  1. When we don’t know who did the action:
    The poem Beowulf was composed in the eighth Century
  2. When you want to be vague about who is responsible:
    The files have been lost

Now, it may be that the writer of the second passive doesn’t know who lost the files. Or it could be they’ve used a passive verb here because, well, ‘that’s just the way professionals are supposed to write’.

Either way, at best, the organisation they’re writing for appears incompetent. At worst, they come across as evasive and unwilling to take responsibility.

Lesson: don’t erode your reader’s trust by using passive verbs in this way – unless you’ve got a very good reason to ditch the do-er.

Reason to avoid passive verbs #5: they can be tricky for non-native speakers

It’s particularly important to avoid passive verbs if your audience includes readers whose first language isn’t English.

If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you’ll know passive forms are a relatively advanced topic!

 

To quickly weed out rogue passives, run your writing through the Hemingway app. You’ll find it in this handy list of writing resources, along with other tools and guides for more powerful writing. 

For a thoughtful article on why the passive ain’t all bad, check out What’s wrong with the passive voice? on the Stroppy Editor blog. 

 

6 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. amanda chen says:

    Geoff Pullum refutes all your nonsense in his “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive”

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    Clever Geoff, refuting all my nonsense before I even wrote it!

    And ‘all’ my nonsense? Including the explanation of what the passive is? The assertion that Beyonce’s version of the song was better than mine? My acknowledging that the passive can be useful? The statement that leaving out the do-er in a sentence can leave out crucial information? Or that language learners are likely to find active sentences easier to read than passive ones? Nonsense? All?

    One point I made is that most people can’t identify the passive. If you click through the link about corporate style guides, you’ll see I talk about an example of someone complaining about a ‘passive’ sentence that was actually active. This is the very type of complaint that the bulk of Geoff’s article is devoted to pointing out. So we are actually in agreement for the most part.

    To be clear – I never said you should banish the passive completely from your writing. Besides, Geoff Pullum is an academic, not a business person. So he can rail all he likes, but as a hands-on copywriter I can tell you that my clients’ copy is usually improved by turning passive verbs into active verbs.

    Thanks for stopping by, Amanda. Charmed to ‘meet’ you!

  3. Steve Mclean says:

    Thank you, Clare, for another great article. I’m guilty of this and have recently been working to reduce my use of passive verbs. So, this is a timely article.

    Thanks again

    Steve.

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    Glad to hear the article was helpful, Steve!

  5. Clare Dodd says:

    Love this – I really like the way you remove the grammar jargon.

    As a fellow copywriter I always find it tricky training new writers in the ways of the passive – I usually go with ‘if you can add “by zombies” to the sentence then it’s passive’. (The sheriff was shot by zombies/ If it was liked by zombies then a ring should have been put on it by zombies). But that can oversimplify a little so I shall add this article to our intranet too – great stuff!

  6. Clare Lynch says:

    I love the zombie idea, Clare! Very appropriate given passive sentences are often zombie sentences.

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