Passive voice checkers are one of the first platforms to insinuate that passive voice is terrible. However, you can use it correctly and efficiently in a variety of circumstances. This guide explores why passive voice is often looked down upon and when you can use it appropriately.
Why Is Passive Voice Considered Bad?
In simple terms, passive voice is bad because it hides the subject’s identity. This error can make a passage challenging to read and can also make sentences longer than necessary.
There are many instances where editors see passive tense as a weaker alternative. It’s regarded as weaker because it doesn’t allow the writer to get their point across quickly. Readers are far more likely to get the gist of a sentence when the subject and action are at the forefront.
In English, the subject is typically the most critical part of a sentence; then comes the action they’re doing. With passive voice, the action is more important than the subject, and often, writers eliminate the subject.
For example, “The novel was submitted by the author on Saturday.” is a passive voice. “The author submitted the novel on Saturday.” flows more naturally and gives you pertinent information immediately.
Let’s explore the detriments of passive voice in further detail.
Creates Longer Sentences
When writers string passive sentences together, it creates a boring drag of little detail. With extra words, text can feel prolonged, causing readers to lose interest quickly. This point is significant with digital media, as unconsciously using passive voice can make text tedious.
Students may also use a passive voice when writing academic papers. Since sentences are elongated, they can add fluff to distract from lack of information. This issue is one of the most significant reasons students receive lower marks on their essays.
Feels Impersonal and Indirect
Many writers regard the passive voice as impersonal and indirect, especially in business. It’s damaging for instances where you want as much information as possible in a short period. You’ll want to ensure the reader identifies the subject and its situation because of the subject.
Otherwise, readers will have to wait until the end of the sentence to know what needs addressing. Also, taking the focus off the subject makes the communication feel more impersonal.
This issue isn’t as crucial with creative writing as it is with business emails, for example. Using passive voice can often feel evasive because there isn’t a subject taking responsibility for the action. For example, “Issues arose because of the situation.” is an off-putting way to explain something without taking responsibility.
With that said, this is a situation where passive voice can be your friend. Sometimes, it can be better to evade direct responsibility, depending on the situation.
When To Use Passive Voice
It’s important to note that passive voice isn’t always bad, and writers prefer it in specific texts. Let’s delve into some classic examples of when it can be acceptable.
When writing, you might not know the subject or the actors in a specific circumstance. For example, if you’re relaying information but don’t have all of the details of who did what.
You might phrase a sentence like, “The drawing was made on the wall in the classroom.” Since the writer isn’t sure who created the drawing, passive voice is acceptable here.
In other situations, you might not need to include an actor at all. If the sentence you’re constructing doesn’t require a subject for further information, you don’t need fluff or filler. For example, “The new lamp will be installed for more light.”
With that phrase, the reader doesn’t have to know who’s installing the light. All they need to know is why someone’s installing it in the first place.
As mentioned, there are situations where being vague about responsibility is ideal. You often see this concept in bureaucratic writing in versions such as, “Mistakes have been made.” In these situations, the subject is “protected” because writers don’t include them on purpose.
Scientific writing and research papers often use passive voice. You’ll find it’s most evident in the listed materials and testing methods, though researchers are making changes. Many researchers write their modern research papers using active voice.
The last example where passive voice is most notable is in persuasive writing. An excellent example is when an author wants to distance responsibility from a subject to persuade the reader. This method is highly favorable in press releases, statements from companies about serious events, and more.
An example of passive text in this instance would be, “The groundwater was polluted.” Compared to the active voice, “Company A polluted the groundwater.”
Passive text isn’t always wrong; it can be useful when evading specific topics or explaining scientific procedures. Knowing when it’s an appropriate place to use passive voice allows you to customize the feeling of your text.