Passive Voice: It can be done!

The gingerbread men were chased around the kitchen.
The gingerbread men were chased around the kitchen.

Rules are comforting. With them, you don’t have to consider your actions. You don’t have to think. And while, generally, rules are good, not thinking is bad—Bad, bad, bad.

Strunk and White’s Rule 14 is an excellent example. This rule simply states: “Use the active voice.”

Overall, this is good advice. It is good to use the active voice. It is good to attribute action. But, the skimmers among us—I am guilty of this too—sometimes take the rule at face value and decide from here on out to strike down passive voice.

Thou shalt not be passive!

Had they—had I—read but 2 inches down the page, they (I) would have found the following caveat:

This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

Strunk and White fail to inform us when exactly the passive voice is necessary.

The Gregg Reference Manual of Style comes to our aid:

The passive form of a verb is appropriate (1) when you want to emphasize the receiver of the action (by making it the subject) or (2) when the doer or the action is not important or is deliberately not mentioned.

Too much active voice can seem machine-like or monotonous. Mixing active with passive gives the writing variety and interest. The use of active voice when the actor is obvious also has the effect of placing special emphasis on the actor, almost to the point of being boastful and definitely gives a sense of assertiveness. These things are ok as long as it is the intention of the writer.

But please don’t think I am calling for the use of passive voice. I am merely not calling for its complete eradication. Here’s a quote that sums up my feelings. It is from my grandmother’s style book The Century Handbook of Writing by Garland Greever and Easley S. Jones @1932:

The passive voice is especially objectionable when, by failing to indicate the agent of the verb, it unnecessarily mystifies the reader.

Word Wabbit’s Rule #1 (which all too frequently is broken): Do not mystify the reader!

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