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Frequently Asked Question on Passive Voice   —   Part 3

In our pre­vi­ous writes, we often dis­cour­aged the usage of pas­sive voice. But in this arti­cle we would see the sce­nar­ios when pas­sive voice is the only way. By the end of this arti­cle you would real­ize that pas­sive voice is not a redun­dant gram­mar entry, it is just a style to hide non-necessary essentials.

When is pas­sive voice con­sid­ered to be good?

Some­times pas­sive voice is the best choice for writ­ing. We will look into few exam­ples when they are useful.

To mask the sub­ject and high­light the object

Let us look into this point under this example.

100 votes are required to pass the bill.

In the above exam­ple, the focus is on num­ber of votes rather than the event “bill”. Thus we can suc­cess­fully empha­size the action. An active state­ment would read like “The bill requires 100 votes to pass”. This would put less empha­sis on bill, mak­ing it less dra­matic.
To de-emphasize an unknown subject/actor.

Con­sider this example:

Over 120 dif­fer­ent con­t­a­m­i­nants have been dumped into the river.

In instances like this, when you don’t know the specifics of the actor, such as in this case, you don’t know who dumped all the con­t­a­m­i­nants in the river. When the knowl­edge about the actor is non-existent, pas­sive writ­ing helps you in report­ing the action with­out actu­ally stat­ing the actor. But if you know the actor, your clar­ity and mean­ing would be benefited.

If your read­ers don’t need to know who’s respon­si­ble for the action.

In this sce­nario it is quite dif­fi­cult to opt for the voice usage. Some instances, you delib­er­ately make the sen­tence pas­sive. This is done to high­light some fact. The catch is, try to put your­self in reader’s posi­tion and antic­i­pate his reac­tion. Here are two examples:

Baby Julie was deliv­ered at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.(passive)

and

Dr. Mark deliv­ered baby Julie at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.(active)

Whereas the first sen­tence is more apt for the fam­ily mem­bers or friends, the sec­ond sen­tence is of more import for the hos­pi­tal report. In first sen­tence we shift the impor­tance to the baby while in the sec­ond the focus is on doctor.

Let us now deal down to strate­gies which would facil­i­tate the pas­sive voice indication.

Strate­gies

Iden­tify

  • Look for the pas­sive voice: “to be” + a past par­tici­ple (usu­ally, but not always, end­ing in “-ed”).
  • If you do not see both of them, then dis­card. Else, does the sen­tence describe an action? If so, is there an actor? If there is an actor, check if it is in the gram­mat­i­cal sub­ject position.
  • Does the sen­tence end with “by..”? Many pas­sive sen­tences include the actor at the end of the sen­tence in a “by” phrase, like “The ball was hit by the player” or “The shoe was chewed up by the dog.” “By” by itself isn’t a con­clu­sive sign of the pas­sive voice, but it is an indef­i­nite indi­ca­tor for pas­sive voice.

Eval­u­ate

  • Is the doer/actor men­tioned? Should you men­tion the doer?
  • Does it really mat­ter who’s respon­si­ble for the action?
  • Are you writ­ing some­thing where a reader should need to know the actor?
  • Do you want to empha­size the object?

Rewrite

If you observe that your sen­tence looks more ele­gant when writ­ten in active voice, switch to active voice.

Frequently Asked Question on Passive Voice  —  Part 2

Con­tin­u­ing with our dis­cus­sion for the most neglected aspects of pas­sive voice, we would look into other fre­quently asked ques­tions. Before div­ing straight into the ques­tions, I would like to point out the impor­tance of this exer­cise. The whole point of this arti­cle is to bring forth the usage of pas­sive voice. Most of the peo­ple frown at pas­sive voice because they lack clar­ity (The sub­ject is not stated specif­i­cally). Some­times this mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion can prove vital to some form of writ­ing (aca­d­e­mic, legal etc). In such form of writ­ing, every sen­tence is under scrutiny, hence the need of utmost clar­ity. Pas­sive voice in such form of writ­ing is eas­ily avoidable.

The pas­sive voice always avoids the usage of first per­son. If there is cita­tion of first per­son (I or we) then it is active voice.

We would start with a counter exam­ple for this claim. “I was hit by the cricket ball”. In this sen­tence notice how the gram­mat­i­cal sub­ject is over­lapped with the gram­mat­i­cal object, hence the pas­sive voice. But this form still uses the usage of first per­son. We notice that we can’t directly dis­card a sen­tence as active as soon as we encounter the usage of first person.

You should never use pas­sive voice.

Though pas­sive voice often reduces clar­ity and makes the mean­ing dubi­ous, it is some­times prefer­able. At times it is only appro­pri­ate to use pas­sive voice. We will deal with all such cases in the next series of FAQs. Just to cite a small exam­ple, pas­sive voice brings the atten­tion to the object, so a sen­tence like “Mis­takes were made.” In the above sen­tence note that by obscur­ing the doer of the action; the sen­tence doesn’t bring the cul­prit who did the mis­take. It merely states that a mis­take was made. Some­times hid­ing the sub­ject brings parity.

Gram­mar checker can find pas­sive voice usage.

If you noticed the first point under the dis­cus­sion in the pre­vi­ous arti­cle, you would notice that we dis­cussed how using pas­sive voice is not a gram­mat­i­cal error. So since it is not a gram­mat­i­cal error, it is dif­fi­cult to catch the error through gram­mar check tool. It may be erro­neous, specif­i­cally hav­ing dubi­ous actions. Let us look into an example.

Women were not treated as equals

In the above sen­tence, we see that the above sen­tence lack pre­ci­sion. A reader would def­i­nitely ask with whom were the women com­pared to here. i.e Women were not treated as equals with men. If you notice now, the exam­ple in ques­tion would be ren­dered as care­less or lazy writ­ing. So think twice before using pas­sive voice in your writing.

By now, I am sure; you would have appre­ci­ated the need for pas­sive writ­ing and its pres­ence in daily world. In the next arti­cle we would see when using pas­sive writ­ing is appropriate.

Frequently Asked Question on Passive Voice — Part 1

We have seen through the usage of active and pas­sive voice in pre­vi­ous posts of this blog. In this arti­cle we would address some of the fre­quently asked ques­tions on pas­sive voice.
Let us start by reca­pit­u­lat­ing the bare essentials.

Pas­sive voice is used to hide the essen­tial infor­ma­tion. Let us see the play of pas­sive voice through var­i­ous examples.

  • This sen­tence was writ­ten yes­ter­day. (But I have no idea who wrote it.)

The mes­sage can be even more abbre­vi­ated and obtuse:

  • This sen­tence was writ­ten. (But by whom, when, and .…?)

Even if we include the miss­ing infor­ma­tion, the empha­sis is deflected from the issue of who wrote the sen­tence because the sub­ject of the sen­tence (the focus of atten­tion) is not “who the author is”. The author (the doer) is almost par­en­thet­i­cal information.

  • This sen­tence was writ­ten yes­ter­day by one of my tech­ni­cal people.
  • This sen­tence was writ­ten yes­ter­day (by one of my tech­ni­cal people).

Misconceptions/FAQ

Using pas­sive voice is gram­mat­i­cally incorrect:

To answer this ques­tion we would start with the def­i­n­i­tion of pas­sive voice in a dif­fer­ent light. A pas­sive voice occurs when the object is super­im­posed on the sub­ject of the sen­tence. In other words, who­ever or what­ever is per­form­ing the action is not the gram­mat­i­cal sub­ject of the sen­tence i.e. men­tioned or inferred in the sen­tence. With this def­i­n­i­tion you would have real­ized, how often we face the need of pas­sive voice. Most of the times the sub­ject is inferred but as always a deduced sub­ject will be prone to con­fu­sion. Let’s see another example.

  • Why was the road crossed by the chicken?

In the above exam­ple if you observe care­fully, you can see the road is the gram­mat­i­cal sub­ject. Due to this struc­tur­ing the chicken here becomes the gram­mat­i­cal object. The more famil­iar way of putting this sen­tence why did the chicken cross the road? puts the object and the sub­ject at their respec­tive places. We use active verbs to rep­re­sent that “doing,” whether it is cross­ing roads, propos­ing ideas, mak­ing argu­ments, or invad­ing houses. You would have seen by now, how usage of pas­sive voice is just a mere exten­sion of say­ing things indi­rectly. It is just a styl­is­tic issue which per­tains to clarity.

Usage of “to be” makes the sen­tence passive:

There is a golden rule to iden­tify pas­sive voice.

form of “to be” + past par­tici­ple = pas­sive voice

The pas­sive voice is much more than using a verb. It’s about rep­re­sen­ta­tion of thoughts from clar­ity per­spec­tive. If you notice care­fully the above for­mula, you would notice that iden­ti­fy­ing “to be” and a past par­tici­ple would def­i­nitely make the sen­tence pas­sive. But using “to be” can cur­tail the flow of writ­ing and cer­tainly make the write a lot less impact­ful. But you should remem­ber “to be” does not by itself con­sti­tute the pas­sive voice, it is occa­sion­ally nec­es­sary. Not every sen­tence that con­tains a form of “have” or “be” is passive!

We have by now looked into few of the mis­con­cep­tions related to pas­sive voice. In the next arti­cle we would look into few other FAQs.

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