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Whodunnit: An Exercise in Passive Voice

We’ve all heard the non-apology “mistakes were made.” Chances are that some of us have even used it when trying…

We’ve all heard the non-apology “mistakes were made.” Chances are that some of us have even used it when trying to admit a mistake without quite fessing up to it. This and similar phrases are so tempting because they’re indirect about whodunnit. And they’re indirect because they use a little thing called the passive voice.

When talking about the passive voice, people often mention that it obscures the agent, which is just a fancy way of saying it hides whodunnit. Take these three sentences:

James hit Marcel.

Marcel was hit by James.

Marcel was hit.

All three contain fundamentally the same content, but they provide the information in very different ways. The first sentence makes no bones about who’s at fault. James did the hitting. The second sentence doesn’t exactly hide the fact that James did the hitting, but it does tuck wily James in at the end there so that the emphasis is on Marcel. The third version gets James pretty well off the hook — we know that poor Marcel was dealt a blow, but we don’t know who struck him. (That crafty James is probably off somewhere enjoying a milkshake and plotting his next assault.)

Sometimes, people use the passive voice intentionally with the aim of hiding who did whatever thing was done.

Other times, people just slip into the passive voice without noticing. The passive voice requires that you use forms of the verb “to be” (is, was, were, will be, and so on), which is a pretty easy habit to get into, since it’s a verb that we’re all very comfortable with. But it’s a filler word in these cases and does little but slow down a sentence. Although there are legitimate uses for it, in general, your prose will be weakened by the passive voice.

If you’re paying close attention, you just caught me using the passive voice. If you didn’t notice, don’t worry — here are some hints for hunting it down. You can generally spot passive voice by watching for the following things:

  • A “to be” verb followed by another verb and the word “by”: “Marcel was struck by Joe.”
  • The same sentence structure with the “by X” bit omitted, provided you could add a “by X” that provides information about who committed the verb. Watch out for past-tense, though! “James was jumping by Marcel” would seem to fit the pattern, but note that in this sentence, it’s James and not Marcel who’s doing the jumping, so the “by” information provides no information about who’s committing the verb, and this is a sentence in the past tense but not the passive voice.

If you make an exercise of scanning your writing for these types of sentences and changing any that can be rewritten without the passive construction, chances are that you’ll find yourself writing more lively, less cluttered, prose. You may even find yourself inspired to use more vivid and descriptive verbs, and that’s surely a service to your readers.

Of course, there’s nothing like a good example, and I’d like to propose a little contest for which you’ll provide the examples. Here’s what to do:

  1. On your blog, write a short post (a few sentences, preferably not more than a couple of hundred words) that really abuses the passive voice. Put words in the mouth of a seedy politician. Write ambiguous sentences in which the whodunnit is so atrociously obscured that I split my side laughing while trying to work it out. Compose a fake interoffice memorandum complaining about the dirty coffee pot. Or come up with an idea all your own.
  2. Then write a revision of it underneath in which you edit out the passive voice except where it serves an important purpose within the piece (hint: the fewer of these the better).
  3. Keep it pretty clean.
  4. Post a link to your post here in the comments.
  5. Bonus points for humor.

I’ll read through the submitted pieces and more or less arbitrarily pick one I liked. The winning entry gets featured front and center here at DailyPost in a few days. Have fun, make me laugh, and assure that I’m dazzled by your editing skills.

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  1. I am guilty of this. This is the best explanation I have seen. Thank you for spelling this out and your advice will definitely be helping me with my writing will help make my writing better.

  2. That is an excellent point and worth looking out for.
    What you call the passive voice is an example of deletions that occur in our everyday language. What is also deleted from those sentences is what Marcel was hit by: a fist, a car, a baseball bat, a witty comment……..

    Deletions make talking easier but also makes misunderstanding more likely.
    I will be looking out for that :)

  3. Daryl,
    Thank you for this post on passive voice. A lot of time has been taken to write it. Passive voice is seen by many, as was said by you, as a clever way responsibility can be passed to others. In all the years English has been taught by me, my lessons have been written to warn students about the pitfalls that can be encountered by passive voice. It has been hated by me for decades. The active voice is encouraged as always preferable to passive voice. Thank you for writing this post. I hope much has been learned by the people who will read it.

  4. I’m guilty of this and have to remind myself to use ACTIVE verbs. Embolden my writing! When I’ve written a story and the character doesn’t come through, doesn’t have her own voice, it’s often because I use passive voice.

  5. Love the post idea – I hope I have time to try to come up with one in the next few days! I am super guilty of the passive voice at work. In my role, I often have to point out when “mistakes were made” so that they get corrected. Because I never want to point fingers or hurt anyone’s feelings, this makes me the “mistakes were made” broken record. Thankfully I don’t think I do it nearly as much in my blog writing!

  6. Looks like the daily post now teaches us English grammar. :mrgreen:

    Not bad at all. Please keep this kind of posts coming.

  7. Daryl, your wonderful post on passive voice was read by me. Such a well-written and thoughtful topic was enjoyed by all. This very treatise on passive voice was taught by my 9th grade English teacher, back in the olden days when English teachers actually taught about grammar. Will a post on this topic suggested by you be written by me? Maybe.

  8. Aaahhhh…guilty, guilty, guilty. :/
    WordPress’s post editor has been attempting to help me, but this exercise turned out to be a great eye-opener once I finished it! It seems passive voice can be a good way to evade solidly naming your subject at times,too. My post is scheduled for Sunday morning. I hope you will check it out!