5 Critical Tips for Using Passive Voice
WARNING: This column contains language of a dull nature and may cause drowsiness. Do not read it while fencing, SCUBA diving, ice skating, operating a blender, or riding a bull.]
Hundreds of you have written to ask me how you can bore your colleagues senseless. After thinking for a long while, I have finally hit on the perfect accompaniment to writing with those excruciatingly dull "nominalizations" we discussed some time ago (See Tip: "How to Enliven Dull Sentences") Hint: It’s not removing tattoos. (Although I do know a guy who offers a great deal on piercing earlobes with a railroad spike. He’s missed only twice that I know of, but the diminished IQ was negligible.) No! It’s passive voice.
The British use the passive excessively out of feigned politeness. Americans use it out of ignorance. But we all can use it to bore the bejeezus out of anyone whose eyes fall upon our words.
ANOTHER WARNING: Exciting people write in the active voice because it is direct, vigorous, and clear. To avoid writing in the active voice, you must be able to recognize it:
To write in the passive voice, we flip the active voice and write the sentence backwards! Yes, backwards! With the passive voice we can make a sentence so dull, boring, and confusing, our readers long for the excitement of pantomiming Gregorian chants. Which is right where we want them: paying no attention to what we have written. If we’re really good, we can put them to sleep. So it’s perfect for keeping our writing and therefore ourselves dull and boring. And, bonus, writing in the passive voice often allows us to cram unnecessary words into our sentences. Backwards and unnecessary! You just can’t beat that.
So put the object first and the actor—if there is one—at the end, and just flip the sentence and...
|object||act||actor (if there is one)|
|The ball||was hit||(by me).|
. . . Voila! Backwards and boring! To ensure you are writing in the passive voice, remember that the passive has three components; if one is missing, it can’t be passive. Make sure you have:
|a “to be” verb:||The ball was hit (by me).|
|a verb following:||The ball was hit (by me).|
|an object preceding:||The ball was hit (by me).|
Now, instead of writing the more concise and interesting sentence . . .
In 2015 Amazon will surpass Walmart as the largest retailer in the world.
. . . we can write the longer, more boring version:
In 2015 Walmart will be surpassed by Amazon as the largest retailer in the world.
In the passive world, not only do people do things backwards, but sometimes people don’t do them at all! Things just happen! Which is a great way to confuse readers. Rather than making it clear by writing in the active:
Captain Hazelwood ran the Exxon Valdez aground on Bligh Reef.
. . . we can write it so no one has a clue who ran the ship onto the rocks:
The Exxon Valdez was run aground on Bligh Reef.
See how easy this is?
CONFESSION: Sometimes, even exciting people use the passive voice because they:
don’t know who hit the ball;
know who hit the ball, but hitting the ball is not nice;
don’t want to introduce an actor we will never see again;
want to emphasize the actor by putting it at the end of the sentence (See Tip: "The Best-Kept Writing Secret of All Time");
want to avoid sexist language and have no other way to do it (See Tip: "To He or Not to He").
But those are the only times an exciting person would ever write in the passive voice. When we couple passive voice with nominalizations, we have a near-lethal combination guaranteed to cross the eyes of any reader.