23 The Passive Voice Can Be Used

Darhell Eugene

If someone were to take a quarter, and look at both sides, they’d see heads and tails on their respective sides. Despite looking different enough from each other, they’re still a part of the same coin, at the end of the day. The same metaphor can be applied to the likes of active and passive voices; the former seen as more dynamic and engaging in the realm of writing, while the latter isn’t seen in the same light. Moreso in a bad light, given that all kinds of advice associated with writing that you absorb across various forms of media (including YouTube videos, Instagram posts and whatnot), always demonize passive voice as something that holds back someone’s writing from flourishing, something that should be avoided as a plague in other words. However, even though passive voice is seen as the black sheep of the family, it’s better to ultimately see passive writing not as a detriment to writing as a whole, but something that can be beneficial for all writers alike, regardless of what society says, or what the “universal rule” might tell all of us. At the end of the day, according to Ten Ways to Think About Writing: Metaphoric Musing for College Writing Students by E. Shelly Reid, we as writers, write what we are curious about, passionate about, and know about. So, it’s important to recognize the difference of voices, and see how useful the passive voice actually is, instead of running in the opposite direction at the sight of it (or the suggestion/idea of it).

Before going into the meat and potatoes (or in this case, the heart or the soul of the voices), we should briefly go over what passive voice and active voice is. For the former, it mainly emphasizes the person or object receiving the action. But for the latter, it has a heavy emphasis on a person or object performing the action, according to biomedical editor Barbara Every, an example of passive voice would be, “Samples were analyzed”, or “Swords were forged”. On the other hand, an example of active voice would be, “We forged the swords.”. In many cases, because of how active-voice sentences are not only clearer, livelier and engaging, but they are usually more direct compared to passive-voice sentences. In fact, as C.G. Brooke says, the idea of using the active voice is so strong, that it could be considered a universal rule of sorts for all writers, regardless of what kind of writing that they do. It also mentions that active verbs are seen as more vigorous, bold, concise, forcible, lively, as well as emphatic. However, the same article mentions how the passive voice can be “used to obscure responsibility or accountability.”. It must be said however, that both active and passive voices could be used equally to deliver whatever kind of message that the writer wants to deliver, and either voice (especially passive voice), doesn’t obscure the actual meaning behind the writing, assuming the writer knows exactly how to go about it in terms of using passive voice. Plus, where she mentioned obscuring responsibility or accountability, it can be used in one of the methods for writing in passive voice in the next section.

But how exactly can we use passive voice? There are several ways we can use them, and in some cases, the usage of the passive voice can be acceptable. According to the article, Passive Voice: When to Use It and When to Avoid It, by Corson and Smollett that was submitted to the University of Toronto, we can use passive voice in cases that we talk about either a “general truth” (example being “Rules are made to be broken.”), to emphasize “the person or thing being acted on” (example for this one being, “Insulin was first discovered in 1921 by researchers at the University of Toronto. It is still the only treatment available for diabetes.), or in the cases of writing lab reports and scientific research papers (example for this being, “The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid”.). To add on to this, passive voice can be used too if we know little to nothing about the actor. From the same article, an example of this would be, “The Cave paintings of Lascaux were made in the Upper Old Stone Age”. This works because we don’t know exactly who made the paintings, so that’s left up in the air for interpretation or speculation. From these examples that focus on how we can use passive voice effectively in our writing, this goes to prove that passive voice shouldn’t be avoided completely from its presence in the writing sphere overall.

How we make use of our writing is what constitutes the overall quality of the writing itself. In other words, regardless of whether we use active or passive voice, we are still making something that makes us writers, at the end of the day. Active voice may still be seen as the better of the two, but all writers should recognize that passive voice still has a place in the writing world. However, it’s best to keep in mind that passive voice should be used in certain situations- primarily in non-creative works, like school papers, research papers, and so on.

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Good Ideas About Writing by Darhell Eugene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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