Passive

As a beginning writer, I’ve been told frequently and I’ve read many times never to use the passive voice in writing.  (One critic even said it leads to effeminacy and homosexuality.)  It’s supposed to add unnecessary words and not be clear as to who is doing the action.  It also subverts the natural word order for English sentences and makes it harder for the reader to process the information.  While some of this is true, that’s not always a reason for not using the passive voice.  My complaint about these criticisms stems from the question about who is doing the action.  Sometimes the “actor” in a passive-voice sentence is known, even though that person may not be specifically labeled in the sentence.  For example, “Walter was taken to the hospital.”  The sentence doesn’t specifically say who took him to the hospital, but from the context of the sentence, the reader can usually figure it out.  If he was in an accident and police and an ambulance arrived, it should be obvious who took him to the hospital.  I’ve found that this is the case in many instances in my or someone else’s writing when it’s being critiqued.  So often a member of a critique group will blurt out “Don’t use the passive!  We can’t tell who the actor is,” when the actor can be inferred easily from the context.

Another problem I’ve had with the passive voice is that sometimes I will be called out for using passive when the sentence under review wasn’t passive at all.  Passive voice requires the use of a form of the verb “to be” and a past participle.  In the above example, “was taken” is passive.  But sometimes a verb ending in -ing is taken as passive, as in “He was coming to town.”  This really isn’t passive, though it isn’t a great sentence either.

In science, however, the passive voice is really common.  I’ve used it a lot, and it appears in many scientific papers.  It’s especially prominent in the section of a paper which details what the people who did the work actually did.  This is usually called the “Techniques” section or the “Materials and Methods” section.  For example, and I use my own specialty of virology here, someone might write: “The virus particles were suspended in…” or “the cells were pelleted at 1000 RPM for five minutes,,,” or “the mice were injected with…”  You get the picture.  The people performing these actions aren’t specified but since the names of all the people who worked on the project are listed at the top of the front page of the paper, the reader can tell, generally, at least, who was doing the work.

Why scientific papers used this convention I don’t know, but it may have something to do with the idea of remaining relatively anonymous.  Scientific information is supposed to be available to all without restriction, and it may have been looked on as somewhat out of place for a scientist to claim “I did this,” when publishing his work.  By the time I retired from active virology research, though, more and more papers were being published using an active-voice approach to the description of the work.  I even did once myself.  This active-voice approach is common if only one person is the author of the paper.  Then it’s easy to say “I suspended the particles in…”

In short, I don’t consider the passive voice to be all that bad.  Certainly it wouldn’t make good reading if it was used too much, but a few instances of passive voice don’t usually do much harm.  Sometimes it just sounds better, anyway.

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  1. #1 by Fred Aiken on September 2, 2013 - 9:28 AM

    The rules in writing are made to be broken if the result is a better story. Using your “was taken” as an example, The murderer was taken into custory by the police.” removes the reader from the action and robs the story of excitiment and immediacy. Revising it to the active to get “The police captured the murdered.” places the reader in the midst of the action of the story. The reader is in the moment of maximum excitment and better enjoys the story. The passive “Santa claus was coming to town.” fails to tell the reader if he actually arrived or was taken into custody by the grentch. So the litmus test remains the story filled with appropriate action to have the best sotry possible. To quote Ecclesiastics, There is a seanson and a time for everything under the sun, which includes passive voice.

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