Author Topic: When there are compelling reasons for using passive voice sentences  (Read 7714 times)

Joe Carillo

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Last week, I posted in the Forum an essay arguing that good writing isn’t the all-active-voice affair that our English teachers had most likely made us believe, and that there is, in fact, a perfectly valid place and role for passive-voice sentences in both our written and spoken English. That 2004 essay in my English-usage column in The Manila Times was actually followed in quick succession by two more essays enjoining writers to reexamine their acquired aversion to the passive voice. The second of those essays, “When even the passive voice is not enough,” already appeared in the Forum in a posting I made in June of 2009. This time, to complete the trilogy, I am posting the third essay, “Crafting our sentences to their context,” where I recommend the use of the passive voice when there are compelling grammatical and semantic reasons for doing so. (August 21, 2011)

Crafting our sentences to their context

We will further pursue my thesis in two previous essays (“In defense of the passive voice” and “When even the passive voice is not enough”) that we should not totally rely on the active voice, and that the passive voice is in itself a powerful form for precisely crafting our sentences to their context. Although the active voice is a handy default vehicle for expressing ourselves clearly, the passive voice is the only semantically correct choice if we want to call attention to the receiver of the action, to the instrument used in the action, or to the action itself.

One major virtue of the English language is, in fact, the many options it offers for constructing sentences to yield more or less the same meaning. We must keep in mind, though, that these sentences are rarely the same semantically; their shades of meaning and focus differ by appreciable degrees. To understand these differences, let’s take a look at the basic English clause pattern: “Alicia [subject, as actor] gave [verb, as the action] Roberto [indirect object, as the beneficiary] a tender hug [direct object, as the goal].”

We already took up three ways by which the passive voice can change this basic clause pattern: (1) make the indirect object the subject of the sentence: “Roberto was given a tender hug by Alicia.”; (2) make the direct object the subject: “A tender hug was given by Alicia to Roberto.”; and (3) make the act itself the subject: “Alicia’s hugging of Roberto was tender.” The passive voice purposively diminishes the importance of the subject or actor so it can draw greater attention to the indirect or direct receivers of the action, or to the action itself.

The passive voice becomes even more useful when it is not necessary or desirable to mention the subject or doer of the action at all. In science and technical writing, for instance, the passive voice is the conventional choice because the doer of the action is often obvious, unimportant, or unknown: “An intensive search for an antidote to the raging avian flu virus is underway.” The active voice, in contrast, gives unwarranted importance to the unknown doer of the action at the expense of what’s being done, which in this case is more important. For that reason, this active-voice sentence is rabidly cockeyed indeed: “Veterinary-disease researchers intensively seek an antidote to the raging avian flu virus.”

And the passive voice, of course, is not all that rare even in journalism, the ultimate redoubt of the active voice. Take this horrible active-voice news lead: “This reporter found out today that the complainants in the Manila electioneering case had falsified evidence.” More sensible, more logical is this passive voice construction: “The evidence in the Manila electioneering case was falsified by the complainants.”

An even more compelling reason for using the passive voice has little to do with grammar but more with the art of communication itself. It is the need for restraint, prudence, tact and diplomacy in the workplace and in our day-to-day personal interactions. The active voice is particularly unsuitable for situations where it directly and unequivocally attributes an error, mistake, or failing to someone, thus squarely putting the blame on him or her. With the passive voice, we can be scrupulously correct without pointing an accusing finger at anybody, and can deliberately keep certain things vague to let others save face.

Assume, for instance, that your advertising agency has bungled its bid for a large consumer products account, and that the reason was that, at the last minute, your immediate superior doubled the budget you had recommended. This was mainly why the prospective client chose the other agency, whose proposed budget happened to be, well, about the same as your original figures. How deliciously tempting it would be to report the fiasco straightforwardly and invoke the active-voice rule for doing so! “We lost the account because my boss insisted on doubling the proposed budget that I had strongly recommended, which of course the prospective client found excessively high. Its winning bid turned out to be only half as ours.”

The active voice here, of course, tells one painful truth that will not set you free—it is one, in fact, that’s guaranteed to instantly kill off careers and relationships. How much more politic to use the passive voice for that truth: “Our proposed budget for the advertising campaign was doubled shortly before our presentation to client, thus making it twice the bid of the agency that won the account.” Everybody in your agency would know what really happened anyway, so there’s no need to rub it in by using the active voice flagrantly.

The choice between the active voice and the passive voice, then, is not just a matter of grammar. It is at the heart of the matter of our use of the language itself. (February 10, 2004)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 10, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay later appeared as Chapter 68 in the book Giving Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo.
« Last Edit: November 23, 2021, 07:34:50 PM by Joe Carillo »