Mike Connell

Passive Voice: Laura Petrolino is Right. And Wrong.

By: Mike Connell | August 29, 2017 | 
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Passive Voice: Laura Petrolino is Right. And Wrong.I was recently asked to re-read “Five Things to Remove from Your PR Proposal Right Now.

Wait a minute. Check that.

I was recently asked to re-read Laura Petrolino’s post (by zombies).

If you’re not getting this reference, then a) you haven’t read Laura’s post (get on that!), and b) you, yourself, may have trouble identifying the passive voice. 

Fine. Someone asked me to re-read her post.

Is that better, Laura?

The “Don’t Be Passive” section, in response to some of my less-than-active writing.

The nerve.

Then and there, I decided I couldn’t sit idly by while the passive voice and, perhaps more importantly, my writing, were called into question (by zombies).

I Love Corn Dogs

True, like corn dogs and exercise, too much of any one thing can lead to trouble, but when used properly and in moderation, what can go wrong?

Hence my mission: to prove passive voice has a place in prose.

Before we start on this journey, let’s define passive voice.

According to Grammarly:

Passive voice means that a subject is a recipient of a verb’s action.

That doesn’t seem so terrible to me.

Grammarly goes on to say:

You may have learned the passive voice is weak and incorrect, but it isn’t that simple. When used correctly and in moderation, the passive voice is fine.

Fine may be understating things, but I’ll take what I can get.

Passive Voice: Twitter Will Have the Answer

The journey continues.

My first stop: Twitter.

If you can’t find your answer on Twitter, one may not exist, especially when it comes to proper grammar and well-wrought turns of phrase.

One quick search found me what I needed.

Fonda Lee

Passive voice gets a bad rap.

“Don’t ever use passive voice!” is one of those writing rules you should ignore at your discretion.

Here’s why:

11:59 AM – 3 Jul 2017

Prose isn’t just about action.

It’s about focus and attention.

The most powerful positions in a sentence are the beginning and the end.

12:01 PM – 3 Jul 2017

You might want focus to be on the acted-upon objects. e.g. “The children were led into the white room with the waiting dingos.”

12:03 PM – 3 Jul 2017

Who is doing the leading here?

I’m deliberately signaling it doesn’t matter.

I want the focus to be on the children. And the dingos.

12:06 PM – 3 Jul 2017

Passive voice has a place in prose.

Just like omniscient (head-hopping) POV. And adverbs.

They can all be used to great and proper effect.

12:07 PM – 3 Jul 2017

Unfortunately, overuse or misuse of some writing tools has led to so-called “rules” that should be guiltlessly broken when called for.

12:13 PM – 3 Jul 2017

Exactly!

Now, to be clear, I don’t know who Fonda Lee is, nor have I read any of her books, but this is good stuff nonetheless.

The Voice of Choice

Where Fonda Lee feels guiltless in her active use of passive voice, others (mainly me) argue that passive is just that: A voice.

To be used when and where appropriate. 

The passive is the voice of choice, then, when the done-to is in the spotlight.

In recounting the climax of Oedipus Rex, in which a messenger explains the backstory, it is more natural to say The messenger had been given a baby to get rid of by a shepherd from the Laius household than A shepherd from the Laius household had given the messenger a baby to get rid of.

All eyes are on the messenger, so the sentence should begin with him.

Also, the passive’s ability to hide the doer, though abused by mistake-makers, is handy when the doer’s identity is irrelevant.

In the news item The suspect was arrested in connection with the killing of three Israelis, we don’t need to know that a guy named Shlomo made the arrest. —Passive ResistanceThe Atlantic 

And there’s our problem.

A few bad apples, these mistake-makers, have given passive voice a bad name.

More on that later.

Laura is Right

Ouch. That hurt.

But still, let’s be honest: in a proposal, being direct and confident is very important.

Opting for passive voice or, worse, falling into it as a result of lazy writing, is not going to win the pitch.

But we’re not always writing proposals and strategies in our line of work, and nothing should be written 100 percent in active (or passive) voice.

Not everything needs to be succinct all of the time.

You need to take into account who you are writing for, and what you are trying to accomplish.

Laura is Wrong

There are times when passive voice needs—dare I say has—to be used.

If the writer doesn’t know who took the action, or who the action should be attributed to (or the writer purposely wants to hide that or detract from it), then passive voice is used.

Per Fonda Lee, where does the writer want the focus?

If the writer wants to place the attention on the action, rather than the person doing the action… passive voice!

Sweeping statements aren’t always effective, however if the writer is communicating something that can be ascribed to a number of people, then: Passive voice.

Grammarly acknowledges the effectiveness of passive voice in this case, showing us how awkward active voice can be.

Diets are made to be broken (by zombies).

Using active voice to express this idea would be awkward: People who make diets make them to be broken.

The sentence is true, however it is written or constructed (by zombies), but the important lesson is to think about what you are writing, why, and to whom.

That (and maybe Laura) should dictate your voice, not laziness or just because someone told you not to use passive construction. 

Lazy Writing

The many pundits who decry the passive voice fall prey to their own smarty-pants-ness.

They pit passive against active in outrageous sentences that the worst, laziest writer would never—could never—construct.

True, they’re trying to provide an example of why active works better than passive voice, but the examples themselves are often harder to compose than the more effective, active versions.

A common comparison speaks to the active voice being more direct. More… active.

Specifically, in William Strunk’s original 1918 edition The Elements of Style:

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:

I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

This is much better than:

My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise.

No kidding.

Lazy writers use passive voice?

It seems to me that coming up with “will always be remembered by me” would be a challenge.

A sentence like that takes effort and purpose.

How about:

My first visit to Boston won’t be forgotten.

My first visit to Boston won’t ever be forgotten.

My first visit to Boston shan’t ever be forgotten.

Sure, I changed some things around.

Forgotten instead of remembered.

But I did so to make it sound better, not out of laziness.

Purists would argue the first, active voice, writing sample is more direct and, therefore, more effective.

Personally, I don’t think they are any less clear or bold, and they took more effort to compose, more creativity, than the active version. Lazy my a*s.

Mistakes Were Made (by Zombies)

Back to our bad apples.

Well, maybe bad is the wrong word. Political.

Politicians use the passive voice. A lot.

It aids in the construction of the Artful dodge and the impersonal, non-apology.

“The passive’s ability to hide the doer, though abused by mistake-makers, is handy when the doer’s identity is irrelevant,” or when the doer’s identity needs to be concealed.

Their intent isn’t malevolent, and use of passive voice in political context is far from lazy.

It’s clearly tactical, which continues to paint poor old passive voice in a bad light.

It has its uses.

There’s a time and a place.

I will admit that Laura is, largely, correct in her statements that passive voice can hurt a proposal, but I will stand firm on the fact that passive is an effective grammatical foil.

Something written 100% in active voice would be just as difficult to read as something completely constructed with passive voice.

A balanced structure is something to strive for (by zombies).

About Mike Connell


Mike Connell is the director of client services at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. He is also a contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks, the leading source for modern PR training, trends, and insights. Find more of Mike's musings on his blog, Communative .

  • This post is nothing short of amazing! And I’m mentioned so many times! I’m in the headline!!! This is ridiculously exciting. I need to gather myself and then I’ll come back for a real comment!

  • Jen

    I love this post! I agree. When used intentionally, and with thought as to why, using passive voice is totally acceptable.

    Also, it mentions Laura a lot. See, I can be a team player… 🙂

    • I see a trend in what people are taking away from this post. Laura.

  • paulakiger

    I am not sure whether to be surprised that it’s been five hours and Laura is still processing (voicelessly…) or agog at how many times she was mentioned (even called WRONG!). // I *love* a good language debate post. Hooray! As everyone probably knows, I’m a freakish stickler about most things language. I have, however, conceded that being a stickler and being a Twitter citizen aren’t always mutually possible so I’ve eased up a bit (there). // Language is a growing, dynamic organism (so are its rules). Again I recommend Words on the Move – Why English Won’t — and Can’t — Sit Still (Like: Literally (cue Laura again….)). // That said, almost all of us can use some tough love in the language category. Two people, in the last three years, have diplomatically given me “syntax” feedback — one is in a work situation — and they might as well cut my heart out. BUT …… is is duly noted and although “fix your syntax” is not an easy command to follow (because so much of it is baked in), it’s a reminder that language is personal yet rigorous, and one person’s fascination may be another’s most hated usage ever. // I love spare, elegant writing that gets the job done in as few words as possible but at the same time I love a beautiful turn of phrase — and sometimes THAT takes less than spare writing. // Much pleasure can be enjoyed by me when things are well-written, even in passive voice. 🙂

    • (by zombies). Thanks Paula! Best and longest comment I’ve received to date!

      • paulakiger

        I’m not sure what to think about that! Did you know I was the first person to utter an authorized obscenity in the comments section? Be careful with me and my “firsts.”

  • Liz Reusswig

    Hi, my name is Liz and I’m also afflicted with passive voice syndrome! If Laura had a nickel for every time we drove her nuts with this affliction, she’d be rich! (by zombies…I it doesn’t work here, but I just wanted to say “by zombies”)

  • Brian D. Meeks

    That was pure genius.

    You nailed it.

    Well done!

  • Love, love, love this post.

    I’m surprised I did not see 100 comments from Laura. The night is young though…

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