One of the best known rules of plain language writing is ‘Avoid the passive voice’. As George Orwell said, wagging his finger sternly: ‘Never use the passive when you can use the active.’
Really? Not at all? Not one teensy-weensy little passive? Surely a construction that’s survived in English for a thousand years can’t be totally useless –
‘So?’ I hear you say. ‘I’m not Shakespeare, King James or Thomas Jefferson. I’m just a humble public servant trying to please the boss. Give me clear rules!’
First we need to be clear what we’re talking about. The ‘passive voice’ (it’s a confusing label, but I think we’re stuck with it) refers to a grammatical construction that has these elements:
Active: ‘The committee [subject] held [verb] 6 hearings [object].’
Passive: ‘Six hearings were held by the committee.’ ‘Six hearings were held.’
Now it’s true that passives are more wordy and often sound more formal than their active counterparts. In plain language writing we usually don’t want that. So we should certainly avoid redundant passives – the ones that people drop into their writing for no good reason, which just make them sound like at best clumsy writers or at worst pompous prats.
Why do people use stupid passives? Maybe sometimes because they think it makes their writing sound more dignified or important –
‘Foreign affairs were Hitler’s great interest. The Treaty of Versailles was seen by him as an impediment to his foreign policy ambitions.’ (Why not just say ‘He saw …’ ?)
Or maybe sometimes because, whether consciously or unconsciously, they’re trying to be invisible or avoid responsibility –
‘If instalments are not paid by the due date interest will be charged.’ (They mean: ‘If you don’t pay instalments by the due date we will charge interest’).
It won’t work. Stupid passives won’t make your readers respect you more: they’ll just irritate them. And if your customers are going to feel grumpy about the interest charge, trying to hide from them with passive voice won’t help.
But a point that the passive-haters often forget is that in some situations passives are useful. The right advice is not ‘don’t use passives’. It’s ‘know when to use them’.
So what are the good passives? Firstly, note that an active sentence must have a subject (‘The committee held 6 hearings’); but the passive counterpart can always leave out the corresponding ‘by’ phrase (‘Six hearings were held’).
So the passive is useful where the element that would be the subject of the active counterpart is unknown, unimportant or too obvious to need repeating:
‘I concede that mistakes were made, and I pledge to find those responsible.’ Yes, we understand that it was human beings who made the mistakes; you don’t need to tell us that.
‘The new procedure is being tested at a number of trial sites.’ Ditto.
‘The fire brigade attended, and the blaze was finally extinguished at midnight.’
The second important use for passives is – but that’s enough for one day. Stay tuned.
There’s more about passives in the new Australian Government Style Manual.