When passive voice is permissible

Writers and editors often pass on things they’ve learned—usually at the knee of some mentor they highly respect—in the form of seemingly inviolable rules: As it was said to me, I say to you, Thou shalt not use the passive voice.

break editor's pencil
magdaloubser • istockpho.to/XoW5Oi

I am not saying “you have to know the rules before you can break them.” I’m heartily sick of that old bromide. I am saying you have to know the difference between a real rule and a non-rule.

“Avoid passive voice” is a non-rule. It’s advice, but it’s not even very good advice. That statement may seem like heresy compared with that sacred verse, Elements 2:14, “Use the active voice.”

But this is the hazard of taking a verse out of context. Read on, and see that Strunk and White say the active voice is “usually more direct”—that implies that it is sometimes not more direct. Furthermore, they note, “This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

Yes, you got it: Passive voice is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

Not that great weight should be given to Strunk & White. The shortcomings of The Elements of Style have been well documented by a better mind than mine.

One of the book’s major problems is that the authors misidentify what exactly passive voice is. There’s a whole other post in that, but for a quick preview, have a look at what Professor Pullum has to say in the above-linked article.

Meanwhile, let’s see what Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, has to say on the subject:

Among the times when you’ll want the passive in a given sentence are these:

  • When the actor is unimportant
  • When the actor is unknown
  • When you want to hide the actor’s identity
  • When you need to put the punch word at the end of the sentence
  • When the focus of the passage is on the thing being acted upon
  • When the passive simply sounds better

Do not put yourself—or your prose—in knots trying to avoid the passive voice. Active voice is often better, but not always.

There are many tools in the writer’s toolbox. Passive voice is one of them. Don’t throw it out. To maximize sentence variety, we must use every tool available. We must also ensure we’re using the right tool at the right time. Much of knowing when passive voice is appropriate falls to our artistic judgment.

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  1. I agree absolutely, Kristen. I came across this very thing just a few days ago while writing a sentence in the passive voice. I hesitated because of this “rule”, tried rewriting it in the active voice, but changed it back because it just felt wrong.

    1. Yes! You’re a great writer, Paul, and can trust your voice. It doesn’t hurt to think about it for a minute, but most of the time, your instincts will be right.

  2. […] written before about When Passive Voice is Permissible. Strunk and White admit that “Use the active voice … does not, of course, mean that the writer […]

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