Monday, September 05, 2011

What's wrong with the passive

From a grammatical point of view, there is nothing wrong with the passive, of course. And there are many instances in which the passive is the best choice. But in other instances it is frowned upon as it can lead to an amorphous and obfuscating language in which nobody is ever clearly responsible for anything.

or, putting it in a more active way:

The passive is useful, in its proper place, but several proponents of a clear style (such as George Orwell) advise against overindulging in it, as it can lead to a style better suited to hide information than to reveal it.

The difference, in short, between

"the buck stops here"


"errors were made"


I wrote the above to answer someone on another forum; he was asking why MS Word’s grammar checker always flagged the passive voice.

As with so many other “writing rules”, the suggestion not to use the passive voice when the active one would do should be taken with a pinch of salt. I use the passive when necessary, of course, but I also find that trying to change passives into actives helps me tighten up my writing.


  1. I ignore this particular dictum entirely. Like many others, it is popular with those who cannot express themselves clearly in any form. To damn passive voice without context betrays an ignorance of the many styles of writing needed for appropriate communication in different media. Note that Blair said not to overindulge. That is different than not using passive.

    As for bucks, I find that they usually stop within 50 yards of where I shoot them.

  2. "Overindulge" was my own, here, to summarize what Orwell and others said.

    For myself, I use passives when necessary, and try to replace them with active forms when appropriate. I find that trying to change passives into actives while editing my own writing (in Italian as well as in English) helps me tighten up my sentences by making me think of alternatives - even when then I decide the best option was indeed the passive, after all.

  3. Hi

    Overuse of passive verbs and a high average sentence length are the two main reasons so many documents are long-winded and dull.

    I treach business writing classes and have helped design StyleWriter - the plain English editing software. I'm a strong advocate of switching passive to active verbs. To quote what we say in StyleWriter:

    Prefer active verbs. Active verbs are essential to good writing. Replacing passive verbs with active verbs makes your writing lively, direct, concise and personal.

    To turn passive verbs into active verbs, either:

    Put ‘Who did it?’ first

    It was agreed by the committee...

    Who agreed? The committee did.
    Put this information first.

    The committee agreed...

    Cross out as much of the passive verb as you can

    The savings could be used to pay for a new photocopier.

    The savings could be used to pay for a new photocopier.

    The savings could pay for a new photocopier.

    An average of only one or two passive verbs in every ten sentences is a sign of a competent and professional writer. Replacing passive verbs with active verbs means your:

    · style becomes more personal and less official

    · style is simpler and less awkward

    · readers get more information

    · meaning becomes clearer and more precise

    · sentences are shorter and more effective.

    Although you should try to change your passive verbs into active verbs, sometimes you need to use a passive verb.

    You do not know who has acted or this information is irrelevant

    Example: The offices were built in 1996.

    This is a correct use of the passive because you may not know who built the offices. The information is also irrelevant if your readers do not want or need to know who built the offices.

    You want to avoid emphasizing the person performing the action

    Example: The Director was invited but could not attend.

    This is another correct use of the passive. We are more interested in the Director not attending than in who issued the invitation. We want to focus the reader's attention on the Director.

    You want to be deliberately vague

    Example: A mistake was made in processing the client’s invoices.

    Sometimes you have to be vague. In the example, by using the passive verb you avoid pointing out who made the mistake. Don’t however use this reason as an excuse for not being more direct. If you want to be vague when someone makes a mistake, you do not have to blame an individual, use phrases such as:

    · We mistakenly sent...

    · Our finance staff wrongly processed...

    · Our Finance Department overlooked...

    StyleWriter will find (unlike Word) all your passive verbs and suggest you switch to them to active verbs. If you keep your proportion of passive verbs below 10 percent you'll write in a clear, more concise style.

    Most people don't know when they are writing with passive verbs. StyleWriter will show you how much you rely on them and how to change each one to the active form.

    Nick Wright
    StyleWriter free trial at:

  4. Nick, thank you for your comment!

    I can vouch for the usefulness of StyleWriter. It is not a grammar checker (I still have to find a grammar checker that is more than minimally useful), and it does not make the grandiose boasts of certain other programs.

    On the other hand, what it does, it does well.

    All without infesting your computer with a load of crap (I'm looking at you, WhiteSmoke).

  5. Thank you all. Still context defines its needs when translating it.

  6. I think this is a very interesting post and have also wondered why Microsoft Word has started to suggest correcting every passive sentence structure that I write. I was talking with some colleagues once and one of them corrected the other for using a passive sentence. To be fair, the sentence was not correct in the sense that the active version is more widely used but I think passive forms are useful and relevant - especially for literary purposes. What do you think? Are there any cases where you would flat out never use a passive sentence?

  7. Mr. Riccardo, you are right. Sometimes we have to use passive in our writing and thanks Nick Wright for comprehensive explanation.


Thank you for your comment!

Unfortunately, comment spam has grown to the point that all comments need to be moderated. All legitimate comments will be published as soon as possible.