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Passive aggression: what’s wrong with the passive voice?

John Murray

Up until fairly recently, Microsoft Word had a serious problem with its users stringing together sentences in the passive voice. If you typed  “Hamlet was written by Shakespeare”, it would underline the whole phrase and suggest you changed it to simply “Shakespeare wrote Hamlet”.

More modern versions of Word are less active in denoting the passive, but it remains a point of contention among writers and grammarians, some of whom believe it’s an evasive style that hinders snappy writing.

Let’s get the dry grammatical stuff out the way; a typical sentence will contain a subject (a noun performing an action), a verb (the action itself) and an object (a noun upon which the action is performed). “Tom reads books” is a basic example of a subject-verb-object (SVO) sentence.

In the passive voice, the object is used as the subject, so the above example would become “books are read by Tom”. For consistency among both active and passive voices, we can refer to the acting noun as the ‘agent’ and the noun acted upon as the ‘patient’.

In most cases, that would sound peculiar, so was Word right to brandish its red squiggly line of disapproval at the passive voice? Here are three reasons you might want to use it:

1. You don’t know the agent

A news report will often begin with a phrase like “a man was murdered in the woods last night”. At this stage, it is not known who murdered the man, so a traditional SVO sentence would involve such clumsy wording as “an as yet unknown individual murdered a man in the woods last night”. Since news articles usually begin with a short précis and are expanded on with further details later in the story, this would not be ideal.

2. To place emphasis on the agent

Bizarrely, the passive voice can be can just as effective in emphasising the agent as it can in overlooking it.

Imagine that a couple of days have passed since the incident mentioned above, and police officers have discovered that the murderer was in fact the man’s father. It’s more than likely that this surprising revelation would be introduced with a lede like “the man found dead in the woods earlier this week was killed by his own father”.

3. You don’t want to state the agent

There is a more sneaky use for the passive voice, and it’s probably the main reason why some groups frown upon it. It can be used to explain that something has happened, but you want to avoid saying who made it happen.

In 2007, the then prime minister Gordon Brown said the following about the war in Iraq:

“I accept that mistakes have been made.”

Note that he didn’t say “I have made mistakes”, “we have made mistakes” or “Tony Blair has made mistakes”. It’s a convenient phrase to concede that things didn’t go to plan without pinpointing whose fault it was.

Similarly, reactionary newspapers like The Daily Mail will often use the passive voice to convey an emotion, such as “complaints have poured in after…”, “fears have been expressed about…”, “there is outrage over…”, etc. These statements introduce a sentiment with doubtable quantifiability. Upon reading the article, you may well find that the “outrage” extends only to a handful of people having a moan on Twitter, and they might be outweighed by the number people who found whatever was supposedly so outrageous to be funny, poignant, educational, inspiring or enjoyable.

I hope this article was enjoyed by you.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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