In Defense of the passive voice

Stacey Day


The passive-voice construction has long been decried and defamed by educators at all levels, elementary school teachers and university professors alike. This anathema to English professors and Language Arts teachers has been crammed down their students’ throats, internalized and in turn regurgitated — but on what basis?

A new world of linguistic expression is opened to us once this taboo around the passive voice is removed. Agents can be elided, and a delicious sense of mystery created. When the passive voice is denigrated, its detractors are revealed to be ignorant of its utility.

Passive constructions are commonly used in police blotters and campus announcements: “Illegal drugs were consumed,” “The establishment was broken into,” “All the food was eaten,” etc.

The passive voice is also seamlessly incorporated into poetry: “Little remains: but every hour is saved/ From that eternal silence, something more,/
A bringer of new things.” This comes from the poem “Ulysses,” a favorite of mine, penned by Lord Alfred Tennyson himself.

Why then, is the passive-voice so maligned? The prejudice against it can be traced back to Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” from 1919 — potentially earlier, but prior sources have been missed by my exhaustive Google searches.

Fun fact: “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little,” etc., were all authored by the same E.B. White! Doubtless, their “Elements of Style” is known to my reader, or else to their roommate, as the authority on lucid prose writing.

Thankfully, the stranglehold that Strunk and White have had for almost a century on the grammatical inclinations of American students was attacked recently by Geoffrey Pullum, professor of linguistics at Edinburgh University, and co-author of “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language,” published in 2002.

Pullum writes, “Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.” This quote was found in **The Chronicle of Higher Education**

Thus, millions of schoolchildren are taught that passive voice is to be avoided at all costs, and only singularly bad writing is encumbered by it, all on account of poorly chosen and inaccurate examples.

Of course, everything must be used in moderation — a true maestro of language is distinguished by his or her ease with a maximal number of constructions, devices and phrasings. An otherwise good paper can be ruined by too heavy a dependence on a single sentence structure, and a somewhat substance-less paper can be written so stylishly, with such varying modes of expression, that it is many reads before its inanity is discerned.

Alas, how often are such vacuous papers published by scholars, assigned by professors and then read by students! Therefore, this editorial should be read as in favor of the expansion of our linguistic horizons, rather than a new tyranny of passive voice construction over active.

In closing, the deeper issue at stake here should be acknowledged — a dependence on, and supply of, prescriptive guides to use of the English language, as opposed to descriptive. Too timid to explore the full expressive possibilities of our own language, we have all been hoodwinked, duped and conned into conformity.

The Oxford English Dictionary, commonly consulted as the ultimate authority on word meaning and usage, was written and professed to be a descriptive work — hence the yearly additions of words that have been incorporated into the speech of Anglophones.

The mission of the OED is perverted until it is made into an absolute, prescriptive figure by the forced reliance on authority, endemic in the young academics of today.

Therefore, passive voice construction should be not only used, but relished in as another strike against the man, against prescriptive dictates from self-appointed gods of grammar and against the curtailment of our linguistic rights and liberties.

Passive no longer, let us create our language in defiance of arbitrary convention.