Who did this? How the passive voice hides the subject of your sentence
Consider these problems the passive voice can create in PR writing.
Editor’s note: This article is a re-run as part of our countdown of top stories from the past year.
Listed among George Orwell’s “swindles and perversions” of writing, it’s important to recognize when you use passive voice and consider if it’s the best choice for your sentence.
What Is Passive Voice?
English sentences usually follow a pattern, subject-verb-object, reflected in “Lauren ate the cookies.” (“Lauren” is the subject. “Ate” is the verb. “Cookies” is the object.) Passive voice follows a different pattern, object-verb-subject, resulting in a sentence like “The cookies were eaten by Lauren.”
This grammatical construction also allows for the subject, the one doing the action, to be dropped from the author’s sentence completely, becoming “The cookies were eaten.”
In English, the first words of a sentence carry more weight. In a passive construction, this means there’s more emphasis on the object of the sentence and a less emphasis on the subject doing the action. The difference between the active and the passive sentences is stark, as the passive voice obscures or removes the connection between me, the subject, and my actions, eating the cookies.
One way to identify if a sentence uses passive voice is to look for forms of “to be” followed by a past participle. This can be “was used,” “is given,” “have been chosen,” “being named,” or many other similar combinations.
However, not every sentence that contains a form of “have” or “be” is passive; the sentences “Jennifer has a dog,” or “Colleen is an American,” are both active constructions. Additionally, there are grammatically active constructions that avoid using the subject in the sentence. For example, compared to “Lauren burnt the cookies,” “The cookies burned” uses active voice while evading pointing to who caused this to happen.
What’s the problem with passive voice?
Back in May of 2020, the New York Times tweeted about an article they wrote covering the protests with these three sentences:
Minneapolis: A photographer was shot in the eye.
Washington, D.C.: Protesters struck a journalist with his own microphone.
Louisville: A reporter was hit by a pepper ball on live television by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her. https://t.co/bXfZOUilOG
— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 31, 2020
The internet erupted upon noticing that the protesters’ actions were described with an active voice while the police’s actions were passive. The tweet seems to avoid placing the onus of the journalists’ injuries on the police in the first and third sentences while placing the protesters in an active role in the second sentence.
Upon reading the article linked in the tweet, the sentences seem to be pulled directly from the article. The tweet was likely not intentionally disconnecting police from the violence they caused but highlights the importance of critically considering the use of passive voice.
However, not all uses of the passive voice are mistakes or unconscious choices. The ability to hide or even remove mention of the subject of a sentence is a powerful tool.
For example, “Management furloughed more women than men,” recognizes management as responsible for their decision. “More women were furloughed than men,” seemingly absolves individuals in management of their accountability, puts the focus on who the action is being done to and, especially in this case, makes the problem seem nebulous and unapproachable.
Active voice offers the subject the agency and responsibility for their actions. It’s often more truthful, better describes cause-and-effect situations and demonstrates a better understanding of the context.
When passive voice is appropriate
There are perfectly good times to use passive voice:
- When the action is done by an unknown subject (“The toys were donated.”)
- When the subject cannot or should not be disclosed (“The cookies and milk were consumed.”)
- When the focus is on the object of the sentence (“The package was delivered.”)
To improve your writing and your critical media consumption skills, learn to recognize and consider the use of passive voice. Be aware of the issues that passive voice can cause. When you’re writing, ask yourself why you’re using this style and if passive voice is interfering with your sentence’s ability to be clear and truthful. When in doubt, rewrite your sentence so no one must ask: “Who did this?”
Lauren Beehler is a writer with Communiqué PR.
You’re conflating “subject” and “agent.” Passive voice sometimes hides the agent, not the subject.
Ditto. If you want to offer grammar advice you really should learn about grammar first, such as being able to distinguish between a subject and an object. And no sentence lacks a grammatical subject (even if, as with an imperative, it’s implicit).