Passive Voice: Pros and Cons

Passive voiceBig Bad Rule:  Eliminate passive voice from your writing.

You’ve heard this rule.  I’ve heard this rule.  Pretty much everyone who has been writing for over a week has heard this rule.  Unfortunately, there are two problems with this rule.

  1. To eliminate it, you have to be able to identify passive voice.
  2. Sometimes passive voice is necessary.

Passive voice, simply put, is when the action happens to the subject.  “The Zika virus vaccine was invented by Dr. No.”*   The vaccine didn’t do anything.  It is passive (and not just because it is inanimate).  Following this advice, I would rewrite the sentence as “Dr. No invented the Zika virus vaccine.”

Unfortunately, many people see whatever conjugation of the “to be” verb and they start labeling every sentence that contains a version of “to be” as passive.  The problem with this IS that this is a perfectly good group of verbs that help us avoid needlessly convoluted sentences.  For example, what if I decided to rewrite “The Zika virus is a flavivirus”?*  I could change it to read “The Zika virus falls within the flavivirus genus.” Or maybe “The flavivirus genus includes the Zika virus.”  While the latter rewrite isn’t 100% awful, it lacks the sleek, simplicity of the original.

The problem with completely eliminating either passive voice or to be verbs is that sometimes they are essential.  With them, you can create sentences that are clean and concise.  They also give you a bit more flexibility on where you direct your reader’s attention.

“The Zika virus vaccine was invented by Dr. No.”  This emphasizes the virus and the vaccine.

“Dr. No invented the Zika virus vaccine.”  Shorter, simpler and the emphasis has changed.  I would go with version 1 if I was writing about the virus and version 2 if I was writing about Dr. No.

Thank you to Keith Cronin.  His post on passive voice reassured me that I’m not the only one with a problem with this Big Bad Rule and helped me clarify my own thoughts.


*Note: Dr. No did not invent a Zika virus vaccine but the Zika virus is a flavivirus.