Why Passive Language Isn't As Bad As You Think

Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from Max Atkinson’s excellent book “Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know About Making Speeches & Presentations.” I was interested in running this post because it smartly challenges the conventional wisdom to avoid the use of passive language.

If you use a word-processing program, you’ll almost certainly have noticed that, whenever you write something like ‘it has been decided’, the grammar checker springs into action to point out that this is the passive voice, and advises you to change it to the active ‘we have decided’.

Somewhere along the line, software designers seem to have got the idea that use of the passive is always a bad thing. The odd thing about this is that, if it really is something that should always be avoided, it’s difficult to see why or how the linguistic tools for generating sentences with the passive voice would have ever evolved in the first place.

One situation in which the passive voice comes into its own is where we are in no position to specify who did the thing that is being referred to, as in ‘my lawnmower has been stolen’. Nor does there seem to be anything particularly reprehensible about saying something like ‘I’m delighted to have been invited to speak to you today’, which, in spite of using the passive once, sounds a good deal more natural than the active alternative, ‘Your invitation to me to speak to you today has delighted me.’

Lend Me Your Ears

The Passive Voice Can Confuse

But the use of the passive can sometimes make life difficult for audiences by obscuring the precise meaning of a sentence. The following sentence implies that managers may have played a part in causing the malfunctions in the process. It is also not clear whether the aim is to change and eliminate the malfunctions or the managers (or both):

Identification and evaluation of malfunctions in the process by managers is required so that they can be changed and eliminated.

But use of the active makes it easy enough to get rid of the ambiguities and make the point easier to understand:

Managers must identify and evaluate malfunctions in the process so that we can change the processes and eliminate the problems.




The Passive Voice and Neutrality

In the above example, the first version sounds more ‘official’ than the second. As such, it shows how the passive voice really comes into its own when you specifically want to convey neutrality and objectivity, or where you have good reasons for wanting to leave out any references to particular individuals. This is why it features so prominently in legal and bureaucratic documents, and is such a well-established convention in scientific and technical writings—all of which are areas where there is a premium on generality, objectivity and detachment.

The following alternative introductions to a research report show how the passive works to create an impression of detachment:

The study is based on a random sample of the population, and respondents were interviewed over a period of four weeks.

By leaving out details of the people involved, this concentrates on what was done, and describes it in a way that almost suggests that the study carried itself out without any human intervention at all. This has the advantage of implying that the same methodology would have produced the same results, regardless of who actually did the day-to-day work involved in completing the research. By contrast, using the active voice makes it necessary to include references to persons in the sentence, the effect of which is to remove some of the detachment:

My research assistant selected a random sample from the population, and a part-time team of students interviewed the respondents over a period of four weeks.

The second version even implies that the researchers were amateurs, and that the project might not have been carried out quite so professionally or scientifically as is implied by the first one.

This example shows that there are occasions when a speaker will specifically want the material to come across as neutral and detached, and where the use of the passive is therefore perfectly appropriate. If this is not the case, however, we need to be wary about sounding as though we are speaking pedantic ‘officialese’, and coming across as more formal than intended.

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The Passive Voice and Responsibility

One final point about the use of the passive is that the removal of references to particular individuals makes it very easy to compose sentences that exempt people from taking personal or collective responsibility for their actions. For example, a sentence like ‘We have decided to fire 20 percent of the workforce’ may sound blunt and to the point, but at least the speaker is openly admitting to a share in the responsibility for the decision. But using the passive makes it all too easy to distance yourself from direct responsibility, as when this example is rewritten as:

‘It has been decided that 20 percent of the workforce is to be made redundant.’

There will, of course, be occasions when speakers deliberately want to distance themselves from particular decisions or actions, and the passive provides a simple and effective tool for doing this. On other occasions, however, you will create a better impression with audiences if you avoid obscuring the issue by unnecessary or excessive use of the passive.

Max Atkinson is the author of Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know About Making Speeches & Presentations. He is a freelance communications consultant based in the U.K.