Passive aggressive: using the right voice

‘Mistakes were made.’

This well-known example of the passive voice demonstrates how the construction can be used to protect the guilty party. Tracks have been covered . . . because no one wants to admit mistakes.

What is the passive voice? The voice is the relationship of the verb to the agent (the do-er) and the patient (the done-to), and it can be active or passive. (Another way of looking at it is this: in the active voice, the subject of the sentence acts. In the passive, the subject is acted upon.)

In our example, the mistakes are the patient, and the agent is anonymous. Change it to ‘I’ve screwed up’, and suddenly we have an agent (‘I’), who can be blamed for those mistakes. (We could throw in a patient, too – the budget, the relationship, the dinner.)

The passive voice has other benefits than ass-covering. For instance:

    • Your daughter has been officially cautioned for dying her hair pink.
    • Though she was proclaimed queen in February 1952, Elizabeth was not crowned until June 1953.
    • My dog has twice been spotted using the pedestrian crossing.

In the first, although we could find out who snitched on the daughter, it doesn’t really matter, because the focus of the sentence is her caution. The second is similar: given that the queen is the focus, flipping those passives into actives would make no sense, because it doesn’t really matter who signed the official paperwork and/or lowered the crown on her head. In the third, we may not know (or, again, indeed, care) who spotted the dog; the focus is on its uncanny use of the crossing.

Keeping your focus in mind will help you judge whether to use active or passive.

But if you tend to use the passive voice a lot, consider this. First, too much of it can render your writing soft and flabby. Whereas the active voice is briefer and more decisive, the passive uses more words to say the same thing, and it is less direct, and thus a more boring read. Second, the passive can begin to annoy the reader because it suggests sloppy research — as though you either don’t know or don’t care about the identity of the agent(s) in your sentences.

I see this sort of thing a lot in, say, company histories, where the writer/researcher is handling fuzzy old source material, or is trying for a serious tone, but it just comes out pompous or dull. For instance, ‘A decision was made in 1958 to establish a complaints committee so that staff grievances could be voiced and addressed.’ And just think! They could have had this: ‘From 1958, a complaints committee addressed staff grievances.’

Don’t feel you should never use the passive, though. Clearly there’s a place for it. Just keep an eye open as you write, always testing passive sentences to see if they can be flipped, and you’ll inevitably tighten up your style. And that’s not to be sniffed at.

2 thoughts on “Passive aggressive: using the right voice

  1. Really interesting. Any chance of expanding the article to include (short!) examples of how passive and active are used in PR and news? ‘The Language of Pursuasion’ (a paper from my masters course) left me aware of how grammar can change meaning but not content, but apart from a loathing of adjectives to define a subject (the terrorist organisation Auckland Healthcare yesterday said…), I’d love to read an expanded article

    1. Thanks, Sandra. It’s a fascinating topic, isn’t it? I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment on subtle inflections in PR and media; my plan here was to present as simple a primer as possible on common issues in standard grammar. But you make a good point, and if we all keep a weather eye on such linguistic tricks, we will be better placed to test the validity of journalistic writing. A few years ago, I edited a book on critical thinking (https://www.masseypress.ac.nz/books/tu-arohae/), which is aimed at students but would well serve a wider readership.

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