Passive Voice

Subject: Passive Voice
From: "Kevin S. Wilson" <Jewkes -at- AOL -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 30 Nov 1994 13:07:54 -0500

The standard (good) advice on passive voice is nicely summarized in Mike
Markel's textbook, Technical Writing: Situations and Strategies (St.
Martin's, 1992, 163-65). Markel notes that passive voice may be warranted

The actor is clear from the context. "Students are required to take both
writing classes."

The actor is unknown. "The comet was first referred to in an ancient Egyptian

The actor is less important than the action. "The documents were
hand-delivered this morning."

A reference to the actor is embarrassing, dangerous, or in some way
inappropriate. "Incorrect date were recorded for the flow rate."

To this list, I would add one more: When the actor is less important than the
recipient of the action. "President Reagan was shot today by John Hinckley,

And the last of Markel's justifications for passive voice ("A reference to
the actor is embarrassing . . . .") must be used with considerable caution.
Often, it's a clever way to tell a lie. At other times, it's a convenient way
to avoid taking responsibility for an action or avoid assigning
responsibility for an action, as in Pres. Reagan's first address to the
nation regarding the Iran-Contra affair. In that speech, Reagan said,
"Mistakes were made," a passive construction that allowed Reagan to note the
existence of mistakes without assuming responsibility or assigning
responsibility for those mistakes.

Joseph Williams has some sound objections to the standard advice on passive
voice, mostly having to do with coherence and emphasis. You'll find his
remarks in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (HarperCollins, 1994).

Kevin S. Wilson (Jewkes -at- AOL -dot- COM)
Program in Technical Communication
Boise State University

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