The passive voice: misunderstood or just too awkward to understand?

Jan 3, 2016

The passive voice is infamous as a style choice that we’re supposed to avoid. But for University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, this isn’t a rule that should be set in stone.

“The advice, ‘never use the passive voice,’” says Curzan, “is a bit too sweeping to be entirely helpful.”

So, if it’s “OK” to use the passive voice from time to time, how do we not make it cringe-inducing? Why do we avoid the passive voice in the first place?

Curzan began thinking about this topic when she used it in some of her own writing.

In a blog post, she wrote, “I have a new favorite mug. It was given to me by graduate students.” Her second sentence is an example of the passive voice because the object (Curzan’s favorite mug) is the subject of the sentence. It’s also the thing that’s being acted upon, hence the “passive” versus “active” distinction.

For Curzan, the sentence works well in the passive voice because it builds continuity. “I could’ve put it in the active,” she says. “'I have a new favorite mug. Graduate students gave it to me.’ But that’s kind of a choppy couple of sentences.”

The difference between an awkward passive and a poised passive depends on the clarity of the sentence’s subject. In Curzan’s sentence, the subject is clearly her mug. But that’s not always the case; sometimes, the passive voice can be the writing equivalent of pouring milk in a bowl before pouring in the cereal.

Curzan gives a memorable example: “’A more streamlined process was envisioned by the committee.’”

When you make “process” the subject of the sentence, it becomes a lot harder to figure out what’s actually happening. “Just let the committee do what the committee is doing,” says Curzan.

Yet the dehumanizing nature of the passive can sometimes make it attractive. “When you think of something like scientific writing, it is filled with the passive voice,” says Curzan. “Because in some ways, we think of it as making something more objective. It sounds more objective.”

While it can be helpful to spruce up writing with some formality, we don’t want to sacrifice clarity just to put on airs. Curzan suggests meeting somewhere in between.

“You’re trying to use some of the formal vocabulary that you associate with academia and the fields in which we write,” says Curzan. “But you also want to balance it with some simpler, more colloquial language so your readers don’t get overwhelmed with the formality of it all.”