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Perversely in praise of the passive voice

Yes, it's wordy, weaselly, and wimpy – but sometimes useful, the Monitor's language columnist finds.

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After several days of glorious blossoming spring, I've just heard a weather forecast warning that we might have some snow showers this weekend.

Can you tell that I live in New England?

It's put me in a mood just contrarian enough to make me do something an editor usually doesn't: say a few words in defense of the passive voice.

This grammar term refers to verbs whose subjects are acted upon, rather than acting. "The book was read by John," rather than "John read the book." Both sentences describe the same action; both feature the same cast of characters, so to speak. But the passive verb makes the book the focus. (Some people use the term "passive" to describe writing that's weak or lacking in action verbs. But it's entirely possible to have an action verb in the passive voice: "The audience was electrified by the sounds pouring from the stage last night.")

Most of what you've heard about the passive voice is true: It's wordy, weaselly, and wimpy. Much academic writing, in particular, would benefit from recasting into the active voice. Some scholars are evidently fearful of sounding too lively and perhaps actually being read.

But occasionally the passive voice can be useful.

In a recent newsletter, a colleague reminded me of some advice from Strunk & White: "Many a tame sentence ... can be made lively and emphatic by substituting ... the active voice...."

"Can be made?" Were Strunk & White pulling my leg? But "Many a tame sentence" is more important than the unknown "doer" of the verb.

"The Oscars are awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences." To most of us, the Oscars are more important than the academy.

And sometimes the desire to eliminate passive verbs leads us to substitutes that are even worse. "He won the race for city council" does have more energy than "he was elected to the city council." But "She was appointed chief of staff" is better than simply "she became chief of staff."


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