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Whenever I create a document in Microsoft Word, it complains about a lot of my sentences being in passive voice. But, when I read that sentence aloud, it sounds fine to me. I am not sure if it is just me and will a statement in passive voice sound strange to a native speaker?

So, my question is, is it considered bad form to use passive voice generally? Or in some specific cases like written communications only?

Edit: If it is ok to use passive voice, then why does MS-Word complain?

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In good writing, the passive voice should not be used too much. However, never using the passive voice is also bad writing style. The best thing to do with the Microsoft Word grammar corrector is to turn it off. –  Peter Shor Jun 30 '11 at 23:02
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@Peter Shor: The best thing to do with MS grammar corrector is the same as the in-car SatNav. Unless you know for certain you don't need it, don't just turn it off; use it intelligently in tandem with your own critical faculties. –  FumbleFingers Jul 1 '11 at 0:29
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@FumbleFingers: I use a GPS system, and it's generally really good. However, occasionally the GPS system will tell me to make a less than ideal turn, and sometimes I don't have enough time to think about it and make it. If 60% of the GPS's instructions were wrong, I would turn it off. I find this the MS grammar corrector to be of this level of usefulness. –  Peter Shor Jul 2 '11 at 12:48
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@Peter Shor: To be honest, I don't use the MS 'feature' myself. I probably do make the occasional mistake that it could have alerted me to, but I found it so annoying when it queried things I'd written deliberately that I'd rather do without it. The spell-checker is handy though, particularly given my nom de plume here! :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 2 '11 at 20:43
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There is a good discussion on this topic, including positive uses of the passive voice, on the writers stackechange: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/742/… –  Chris Dec 19 '12 at 15:56
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7 Answers 7

up vote 13 down vote accepted

It's never bad form to use passive form. It's just that in speech, we tend to use a lot of this, but there's nothing wrong with using the passive form in writing, or in speech.

From the Passive Engineer:

Despite the admonitions of grammar checkers, the passive construction has a legitimate function. When you want to emphasize results, use the passive.

Note that it mentions grammar checkers, which I suppose is what you are getting.

Wikipedia states that:

Many language critics and language-usage manuals discourage use of the passive voice....This advice is not usually found in older guides, emerging only in the first half of the twentieth century

Also:

In 1926, in the authoritative A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Henry W. Fowler recommended against transforming active voice forms into passive voice forms, because doing so "sometimes leads to bad grammar, false idiom, or clumsiness

It's really just style, but nothing else to worry about.

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But then, why does MS-Word complain about it? Shouldn't there be some grammar rules on which it is based on? Edited the question too –  rest_day Jun 30 '11 at 23:01
    
I believe MS-Word is complaining about it, because it desires some variation. I don't know, it's perfectly alright to use the passive form anytime. –  Thursagen Jun 30 '11 at 23:02
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There is a myth that you should never use the passive voice in good writing, and this is why MS-Word complains. This myth is completely wrong. Look at this handout. You should use the passive voice to emphasize the object of a sentence (discussed in the handout), to make a sentence connect better with the previous or the following sentence (not discussed, but quite important), and maybe to vary the structure of your sentences so they aren't all the same (although this shouldn't happen if you use the passive voice when it's needed). –  Peter Shor Jun 30 '11 at 23:13
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@rest_day, and how does MS Word complain? If I am not mistaken it tells you to consider changing it to active. The grammar checkers are not perfect, read en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammar_checker and also you can try to get some text from an author whose style you admire and run that text through grammar checker. Should your grammar checker complain you can deduce something about its quality and how to actually use a computer grammar checking. –  Unreason Jul 1 '11 at 9:35
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@PeterShor that handout link is now broken (I know because somebody helpfully pointed out that in response to my answer, which included that same link) The new link is: unc.edu/wcweb/handouts/passivevoice.html –  Patrick Johnmeyer Dec 19 '12 at 15:31
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Most defenses of passive voice focus on (1) thoughtful use of it to emphasize the most important aspect of a particular statement; (2) thoughtful use of it to vary the form of sentences in a piece of writing, to avoid a protracted series of sentences that share the same subject-verb-object order; (3) historical use of passive voice by excellent writers; (4) the recentness and presumed baselessness of criticism that grammar snipes have leveled against it. The first three points are valid and important, I think; the fourth strikes me as being irrelevant at best.

The crucial common element embedded in the first three defenses is the author's conscious and well-conceived decision to use passive voice. In my experience, such intentionality is rare. More often, an author falls into passive voice unwittingly and repeatedly in situations where doing so does nothing to supply a desirable emphasis or to promote structural variety. The sentence,

The investigation was opened on Thursday by the FBI's Washington Field Office, she said.

for example, doesn't have any advantage that I can detect over the active-voice sentence,

The FBI's Washington Field Office opened the investigation on Thursday, she said.

The latter is a bit shorter than the former, and avoids relegating the actor in the sentence (the FBI's Washington Field Office) to a participial phrase; the result (to my ear) sounds crisper and cleaner.

But this is all a matter of taste, I suppose, since the sentence does eventually identify the actor and attribute the action to that actor. The worst fault of passive voice is that all too often it serves to deliver action without an actor. The classic example of this fault is Ronald Reagan's famous pronouncement in the midst of the Iran/Contra scandal:

Mistakes were made.

One could argue that Reagan chose this wording because he wanted to emphasize the politically fraught concession implied by the word "mistakes"; but the formulation also has the convenient characteristic of failing to identify a source of the mistakes: The sentence identifies a result and an action, but no actor (in the non–Ronald Reagan sense of the word).

Though Reagan's formulation surely represents a thoughtful (and tactical) use of passive voice, many instances of actorless sentences do not. Consider this extended exercise in passivity:

When the cost of proposals is born by the business side of the house, frivolous proposals are stopped, proposals are better prioritized, and what is proposed is more likely to have a true ROI to the business, reducing waste and abandoned projects.

The first passive-voice element ("is born") has an identified actor ("the business side of the house"), but the next three ("are stopped," "are prioritized," and "is proposed") do not. A reader slogging through this sentence must either struggle to identify the unnamed actors (the allocation of cost to the business side "stops" frivolous proposals, the receivers of proposals [presumably managers] "prioritize" them, and the makers of proposals [presumably lower-level staffers] "propose" them) or—as is much more likely—skate over the surface of the sentence without really comprehending it. The following reformulation of the sentence is far likelier to make sense to a reader:

Requiring the business side of the house to bear the cost of proposals discourages staffers from submitting frivolous proposals, encourages managers to give priority to the most promising suggestions, and increases the likelihood that proposals will offer a legitimate return on investment, thereby reducing waste and lowering the incidence of abandoned projects.

The revised sentence is significantly longer than the original, but that's a price I'm willing to pay if it yields a sentence that identifies who is doing what, rather than leaving that task to each reader.

Finally, actorless passive voice often crops up in situations where the unnamed actor responsible for the action in a sentence is in fact the author. In these instances, obscuring the author as the source of the action promotes a sense of the objective truth of the assertion. Thus, the wording

The makers of Battery Doctor/Battery Upgrade could not be contacted.

frames a reporter's inability to reach a company while composing his story as the objective impossibility that anyone could have reached them: The company simply "could not be contacted." Again, such strategic use of passive voice may serve an author's purposes; but from a reader's perspective, it clouds and (perhaps) misleads rather than clarifying.

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Consider the following sentences. "We have serious questions about this sequence of transactions. An investigation concerning them will be opened on Thursday by the FBI's Washington Field Office." OR "We have serious questions about this sequence of transactions. The FBI's Washington Field Office will open an investigation concerning them on Thursday." Which sounds better? –  Peter Shor May 7 at 17:41
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The passive voice is not as culturally acceptable as active in modern English writing. We prefer active sentences because they are more concrete. Passive sentences are not prefered, because we do not know who the subject is, making the whole thing more abstract. There is action, but no actor. It's as if ghosts are moving things rather than real subjects acting on objects. Using passive voice is like shirking responsibility. "The glass was broken." Who broke the glass? "Jake broke the glass." Mystery solved.

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Was your use of the passive in "passive sentences are not prefered" deliberate? –  Peter Shor Feb 28 '13 at 3:30
    
@PeterShor As was "Was your use ..." –  Kris Feb 28 '13 at 9:31
    
@Kris: "was your use" is not passive. –  siride Aug 18 '13 at 3:57
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The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published this very good, Creative Commons licensed write-up on what passive voice is, why it might be discouraged, and when it is "okay" to use it.

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Or should I say, "This write-up has been published by the Writing Center..." –  Patrick Johnmeyer Sep 9 '10 at 15:23
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I think it got moved to writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/passive-voice-demo (and turned into an animation(?)) –  sprugman Dec 14 '12 at 19:43
    
I've updated the URL to point to the original document, but I like that link too! –  Patrick Johnmeyer Dec 19 '12 at 15:26
    
You’re right: that is quite a good write-up. Thank you. –  tchrist Dec 19 '12 at 15:31
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As other posters have pointed out, there's nothing objectively wrong with the passive voice. It's a useful, grammatically correct feature of the English language.

However some people are prone to overuse the passive voice, which is why many sources of writing advice discourage its use. Unfortunately, this advice somehow transformed from "use the passive use sparingly" to "the passive voice is WRONG!" which is a rather silly extreme.

(But: I once had the eye-opening experience of editing three pages of writing entirely in the passive voice. Reading it was like slogging through molasses, but it took me a while to identify the passive voice as the issue. Overuse of the passive really is bad writing, even if certain English teachers and software programmers go too far in the other direction.)

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Very good answer. I think Microsoft Word, and WordPress, and other grammar editors, flag passive voice for the reasons you described. In certain contexts, it is appropriate. In others, it weakens the point of the sentence. –  Feral Oink Nov 20 '11 at 17:54
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I agree with Peter. It can serve as a cohesion device for juggling new information (usually contained in the predicate of a sentence) and old information (usually put into the subjecct of a sentence). Passive can also be the expected style in certain genres (science).

In English departments in America, professors teach stupid things like: avoid the verb 'be'... never use the passive voice. I think MS Word has cravenly defaulted to the writers' memories of freshman English classes where they were tasked with writing lively personal essays.

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In certain disciplines of science, passive voice is used to avoid overusing (or using at all) we or I. This is not the same thing as the passive voice being the expected style; you can often avoid using we and still use the active voice, and you should do so except if the passive voice is preferable for other reasons. You are still likely to end up with writing that uses the passive voice more often than would be ideal. –  Peter Shor Jul 1 '11 at 15:58
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That is quite a big question but the basics of when to use the passive run something like this:

In the following kind of sequence:

E.T. is a film about an alien and a boy. It was directed by Steven Spielberg in 1981. Its most memorable scene is the one where the boy and alien fly on a bicycle.

it sounds odd to say "Steven Spielberg directed it in 1981", because the focus of interest is the film E.T. rather than Spielberg. We might also imagine a sequence like this:

E.T. is a film about an alien and a boy. It was released in 1981. Its most memorable scene is the one where the boy and alien fly on a bicycle.

Here we don't even care who released it, we are only interested in the date.

Contrast this to

Steven Spielberg was born in 1942. As a boy he owned a movie camera. He directed his first movie, Jaws, in 1976. He also acted in "The Blues Brothers" as the Cook County Clerk.

In contrast to the above case, here it sounds odd to say "Jaws was directed by him in 1977" since the focus of the narrative is Spielberg rather than Jaws.

In neither case would changing passive to active or vice-versa create a grammatical mistake, though, this is more a matter of style.

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Well, would you say that maybe it's more than style? Should the content (focus; the main thing you want to communicate to the reader/hearer) determine which voice to use? –  Chris Dwyer Sep 9 '10 at 15:35
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@Chris: it isn't a grammar mistake, is my point. As you detected, I'm not sure what word best describes what kind of mistake it is, "style" may not be it. –  delete Sep 9 '10 at 15:38
    
@Shinto: Right... to use one or the other wouldn't be grammatically wrong, but may hinder the reader's understanding of the content. But if hindering content understanding is the writer's particular style... :-) –  Chris Dwyer Sep 9 '10 at 15:50
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protected by tchrist Feb 28 '13 at 1:41

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