Using the passive voice

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In the last couple of blogs, we’ve been singing the praises of the active voice. So clear. So direct. So full of energy.

But this week, it’s the passive voice’s time to shine.

As much as we’ve been slating the passive voice for its ambiguity, sometimes that’s exactly what you need. Here are three situations when the passive voice can save the day:

 

  1. The Whodunnit

Sometimes, you just don’t know who did it. The passive voice is the ideal option when there’s no clear ‘doing’ person.

For example:

My car was stolen on Wednesday.

The house was built in 1876.

 

  1. The Sensitive Subject

If you’re writing about a difficult topic, the passive voice can be a gentle way to avoid awkwardness. Perhaps it’s an uncomfortable topic for the reader. Maybe you are reprimanding the reader but don’t want to sound confrontational.

In these situations, the active voice can sound a little harsh:

The dentist will make an incision in your gum and pull the tooth out using plyers.

You have not paid your electric bill, so we will be cutting off your electricity.

The passive voice softens the tone:

An incision will be made in the gum and the tooth will be removed using plyers.

As the electricity bill has not been paid, the electricity supply will be cut off.

Beware of using the passive too much when you’re cautioning or criticising the reader. It can all too easily sound passive aggressive.

 

  1. The Dodge

When you or your organisation have messed up, the passive voice is one way of dodging the full force of the blame.

The active voice forces you to identify the culprit, even if it’s you:

We have lost your application and did not keep a copy on file.

The passive voice allows you to skulk in the shadows a bit:

Unfortunately, your application has been lost and a copy was not kept on file.

It’s a good trick to know for emergencies, but use with caution. As tempting as it may be to keep pulling the passive out, it’s often overused. Readers tend to appreciate a direct confession rather than a vague dodge.

 

So, there you have it. The active voice is usually the way to go, but the passive voice does have its uses.

Come back on Thursday to see the passive voice taking centre stage in our Write for Real People Workshop.

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