When to use the passive voice

As faculty editor of the UCF Undergraduate Journal, we are constantly on “passive voice search & destroy missions” when we edit manuscripts: hunting for awkward sentences written in the passive voice and converting them into simple and straightforward active voice sentences. We thus found this short essay (hat tip: Eugene Volokh) on when to use the passive voice quite helpful. It was written by Geoffrey Pullman, a professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. [By the way, did you like how we snuck in the passive voice in the previous sentence?] In brief, Prof. Pullman identifies two situations in which it’s not only perfectly acceptable but also desirable to use the passive voice: (i) the trouble-saving passive and (ii) the pussyfooting passive. In the first case, the writer doesn’t want to get bogged down in minor details, while in the second, the writer needs to purposely avoid having to point the finger at someone or something. Here is an extended excerpt from Pullman’s essay explaining this taxonomy (edited by us for clarity):

And when is the passive more compact and direct? One class of such cases comprises [the] “trouble-saving passive.” If you were to take a sentence like Smith was arrested, indicted, and found guilty, but the money was never recovered and try to wrestle it into the active voice, as so many writing guides insist you should, you would have to find subjects for all the active verb phrases. You’d need subjects for arrested Smith (the police department? the county sheriff?), and indicted him (a grand jury, as in the U.S.? the Crown Prosecution Service, as in Britain?), and for found him guilty (a judge? a trial jury?), and for recovered the money (the detectives? some bank or post office? the people whose cash had been stolen?). Implementing this pointless and clumsy elaboration would make the sentence nearly twice as long. [By contrast, there is] “the pussyfooting passive,” which … “is essential in journalism” because “often the writer does not know who did something or is not free to say who did it, but he wants to say it was done.”

Image Credit: Maria Baez

This entry was posted in Academia, Bayesian Reasoning, Culture, Language. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to When to use the passive voice

  1. Craig says:

    It came to my attention that a new blog entry had been posted here. Naturally, it had to be read and it was found to be entertaining.

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