Printer Friendly

When the passive voice is preferred.

The passive voice has acquired a very bad reputation. Conventional wisdom has it that writers should never use the passive voice.

For example, a secretary of a federal department banned the passive voice in correspondence going out over his signature. Interestingly, his edict stated, "The active voice is preferred." Another head of an independent federal agency wrote a memorandum to employers condemning the passive voice. His memo began, "The passive voice is used exclusively in the federal government."

Indeed, the fathers of the modern plain-language movement in America, Messrs. Strunk and White, admonished writers to use the active voice. They wrote, "Many a tame sentence of description ... can be made lively. ..." And how many authors of articles on plain writing have written, with seemingly straight faces, "The voice should be avoided."

What's going on here? Why do these critics shoot themselves in the foot by using the passive voice to criticize the passive voice?

When we read their views carefully, we have a hard time discerning any sardonic smiles. Do they not know that "is preferred," "is used," "can be made," and "should be avoided" are themselves passive-voice constructions? Are linguistic pundits spouting conventional wisdom without carefully choosing the voice of verbs? Or do they intentionally tease readers with admonitions against the passive couched in the passive itself? Let's hope it's the latter.

Many attorneys know the rule - prefer the active voice - but, when pressed, find it difficult to articulate what active and passive voices are, describe why they should prefer the active, or identify when they might profitably swith to the passive. It might pay us, then, to review some basics.

Transitive v. Intransitive Verbs

A transitive verb can transfer its action to a noun, which is called its object, or direct object. For example, in the quintessential sentence "John hit the ball," "John" is the subject; "hit," the transitive verb in the active voice; and "ball," its direct object.

An intransitive verb - like "delve" - cannot transfer action to a noun. You cannot "delve the matter." The intransitive verb must turn to a preposition for help in transferring action to a noun: "The board delved into this matter."

To determine whether a verb is transitive, or intransitive, just ask these questions: Can I [verb] something? Can I [verb] somebody? If the answer is yes, the verb is transitive. And if it is, you then have to decide: Do I put the verb in the active or passive voice?

Many writers don't strategically answer that question. Instead, from habits imbedded by working in the legal profession, government, the military, or other disciplines, they routinely turn to the passive voice. Or, relying on conventional wisdom, they turn to the active voice, ignoring situations where the passive voice is preferred.

Avoiding Passive Resistance

To form the passive voice, take any form of the verb "to be" and add the past participle of a transitive verb. Don't protest that you don't know the past participles of any transitive verbs, for you do.

You can identify the past participle of any transitive verb just by completing the following sentence: I have [transitive verb!. Most past participles end in -ed - for example, "decided," "enacted," and "witnessed." Others are irregular and end in an-n sound such as "shown" or an-elt such as "felt" or an-ilt such as "built."

Thus, in these sentence in the active voice, the underlined subject does something to the bold-faced direct object, regardless or verb tense:

* "The court decided the case." (past tense)

* "Congress will enact the statute." (future tense)

* "The legal secretary has witnessed the will." (present perfect tense)

* "John is showing the movie." (present progressive tense)

* "The contractor was building the stadium." (past progressive tense)

We can, of course, take the same sentences and write them in the passive voice. When we do, what was the direct object becomes the bold-faced subject of the sentence.

What was the subject now trots to the tail-end of the sentence and sits there as the object of the preposition "by." The tense does not change.

Thus, in the passive voice:

* "The case was decided by the court."

* "The statute will be enacted by Congress."

* "The will has been witnessed by the legal secretary."

* "The movie is being shown by John."

* "The stadium was being built by the contractor."

If you look carefully at the above passive-voice constructions, you'll see that all of them use the past participle of the transitive verb. The constructions simply form their tenses through the conjugation of the verb "to be" - "was," "will be," "has been," "is being," and "was being."

So is the conventional wisdom right or wrong? Should a writer prefer the active over the passive voice? We can frame the answer as a legal rule: There is a rebuttable presumption to favor the active over the passive.

But I believe the passive voice is justified in seven situations. Other uses achieve certain stylistic objectives.

When you are generalizing and want to avoid overusing the pronoun "one." Remember back in law school when professors would "one" you to death? "One might point out, mightn't one, that one's best approach concerns the use of one's...." I even heard a professor ask a colleague, "Where might one find the coffee cream?" One should get a life.

The title to this article is "When the Passive Voice Is Preferred." It is not "When One Prefers the Passive Voice."

Passive: Here are seven situations where the passive voice is preferred.

Active: Here are seven situations where one prefers the passive voice.

Don't get me wrong. I do not advice writers to obliterate the pronoun "one" - a handy device when generalizing. I simply urge a sense of balance.

When the identity of the actor is the punch of the sentence and you want to place it at the end. According to the theory of "primacy" and "recency," the two most emphatic parts of a sentence are the beginning and the end. Often you can achieve a sense of drama or intrigue by putting crucial information at the end of a sentence. If the crucial information is the actor, the only way to do this is to use the passive voice.

Passive: The tapes were hidden by the President of the United States.

Active: The President of the United States hid the tapes.

When the identity of the actor is irrelevant and you want to omit it. This situation often arises in legal writing. If you're writing about the enactment of a federal statute, the enactor, of course, is Congress, an irrelevant bit of information. Or if you're writing about a case, often the decider of the case is irrelevant. If the identity of the actor is irrelevant, the ondy way to omit the actor is to use the passive voice.

Passive: The statute was enacted in 1968.

Active: Congress enacted the statute in 1968.

When the identity of the actor is unknown. If you follow the conventional wisdom and always use the active voice, you must use the word "somebody" as the subject of the sentence that you are writing.

Passive: The files were mysteriously destroyed.

Active: Somebody mysteriously destroyed the files.

When you want to bide the identity of the actor. This is the cover your, uh, self approach. You know who the actor is, but you're not saying.

Passive: I regret to inform you that your file has been misplaced.

Active: I regret to inform you that I misplaced your file.

When you want to avoid sexist writing but also want to avoid those horrible s(he), he/she, him/her, and his/her constructions. A writer inevitably gets tangled up in her/his pronouns when s(he) must refer back to his/her singular antecedents. Often the passive voice offers a way out of this morass.

Passive: An application must be filed with the personnel office . A complete educational background should be included.

Active: An applicant must file her/his application with the personnel office. He/she should include her/his complete educational background.

When the recipient of the action is the focus. In this case, you can keep the spotlight shining on your subject only by using the passive voice.

Passive: Smith, because he knows the workings of the department, has lasted for more than a year. Nevertheless, he will probably be asked to resign.

Active: Smith, because he knows the workings of the department, has lasted for more than a year. The President, nevertheless, probably will ask him to resign.

Danger Lurks

Carving out so many exceptions to the rule runs an obvious risk: The exceptions might very well consume the rule. As authors of articles on persuasive writing so often observe:

The passive voice should be avoided. By one.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Association for Justice
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:speaking techniques for lawyers
Author:Good, C. Edward
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Previous Article:No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court.
Next Article:Document management made virtually care free.

Related Articles
Citizen juries: power of the people.
Making the research work for you.
Bringing drama to the courtroom.
Winning without trying.
Waiting for Ted Koskoff.
Psychodrama and trial lawyering.
Reflections on mirroring.
The danger of passivity. (Language Teaching & Learning).
E-Prime, briefly: a lawyer's experiment with writing in E-Prime.
Write right! Being pro-active in your writing results in clearer, concise, and energetic communiques.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters