A Word, Please: Stay active, avoid the pitfalls of passive voice

Often, the goal of writing is to inform the reader. News articles, hand-written notes, emails, Facebook posts — they can all give the reader information he didn't already have. But sometimes when people sit down to write, their goal is not to provide information but to withhold it.

This may or may not have been the case described in an email I got recently from a reader who's in a legal tangle with a surgeon. After a surgery, the details of which I'm glossing over because of the ongoing legal issues, the doctor had penned a note mentioning that a critical membrane "was torn."

The reader, we'll call her Mary, needed to know exactly what that meant. "Was it torn before he got there or was it torn by him?" she asked me. "Very clever if he tore it."

The answer: There's no way of knowing. And that, in a nutshell, is the potentially insidious nature of what is called the passive voice.

The passive voice allows a writer or speaker to completely sidestep a crucial question like who, exactly, performed a certain act.

The coffee was made. The car was stolen. The employee was fired.

Made by whom? Stolen by whom? Fired by whom? The writer isn't saying. At times that's fine, but other times it can be a serious disservice to the reader.

The passive voice is created with a form of "to be" such as "is," "was" or "were," followed by what's called the passive participle, which is identical to the past participle. So in "the coffee was made," the verb "was" and the passive participle "made" combine to make this passive voice.

A lot of people think that passive voice is a sentence with a lot of "ing" forms — like "Gloria was considering becoming more loving and caring." Others think it's any sentence in which the action is snuffed out: "Joe had become convinced that throwing the ball was the thing to do." But in fact, both these sentences are in the active voice.

Instead, passive voice is something quite specific. Simply put, passive voice occurs when the object of an action is made the grammatical subject of a sentence. (More precisely, you'd say it's when the object of a transitive verb is made the grammatical subject of a sentence, but for anyone who finds that too jargon-y, stick with the former definition.)

Consider the sentence: Barb made coffee. This is a classic example of active voice. The doer of the action, Barb, is the subject of the sentence. The thing being acted upon, the coffee, is the object of the verb "made."

Now consider: "The coffee was made by Barb." Here the coffee is still the thing being made. But now it's grammatically the subject of the sentence. That's passive voice.

Sentences in the passive voice often include a "by" phrase telling us who performed the action. For example, "by Barb." But because the doer of the action is no longer needed to provide a subject for the sentence, passive voice lets us omit all mention of who performed an action: "The coffee was made."

This isn't always a problem. Sometimes there's no need to mention the doer of an action. In "The congressman was re-elected," the reader knows who re-elected him. And if we insisted on putting that sentence in the active voice, it would shift the emphasis: "The voters re-elected the congressman."

The most common problem with passive voice is that it can make a sentence less lively. "Scott was punched by Ryan" lacks the immediacy of "Ryan punched Scott." But other times, passive voice becomes a sneaky way to rip off the reader. That's passive voice at its very worst.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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