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November 15, 2006

Passive Voice

Today I was shocked to find that none of the students in my 9am section (almost all junior and senior history majors or minors) could tell me what the passive voice is and what is wrong with using it.

This website explains it pretty well. The passive voice changes the order of the subject and the object in the sentence. While "the girl wrote the paper" is an active construction, the equivalent passive construction is "the paper was written by the girl." The passive construction is just as correct, but it emphasizes the object rather than the subject.

Sometimes there is a valid reason to emphasize the object. An example I gave my students is that David was once in a car accident, but didn't want to admit to me that his friend Josh (the driver) had been negligent in the situation. So instead of telling me that Josh totalled the truck, he told me that the truck was totalled. Pretty clever.

In a paper, the writer might want to emphasize the object if she had just been talking about the object and wanted to make a smooth transition. Most of the time, however, the passive voice is overly wordy, not to mention weak and awkward. It requires the verb "to be," one of the weakest verbs in the English language.

The passive voice is often used (see -- I just used it!) in scientific writing, to make the process seem more objective. When I took physics in college, however, my professor encouraged us (active) to use the active voice in lab reports, and it was much more fun to say "I dropped the egg off the roof" than to say "the egg was dropped from the roof."

David disagrees with my distaste for the passive voice. As an undergraduate English major here at UM, he had a history GSI fail him on a paper for overuse of the passive voice, when he thought it was perfectly justified. Similarly, one of my students who is not only a senior English major but also a peer tutor at Sweetland, suggested in class that to make all sentences active creates a choppy writing style. I do agree with both of them: there is a time and place for passive voice, and it is important to vary one's sentence structures. However, I firmly believe that one must know the rules and practice using them before achieving license to break the rules. If my students don't even know what the passive voice is, how can they use it effectively?

Posted by eklanche at November 15, 2006 11:37 AM


She didn't fail me; she just graded me down. And my point was that not everyone acts; some people are acted upon. See the first line of "David Copperfield" for an example.

Posted by: dmerch at November 16, 2006 12:01 PM

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