Active or Passive: What a Daft debate

Everybody knows what the words active and passive mean. However there is occasionally confusion when using these terms to refer to grammatical voice (not to be muddled with the unique creative voice that distinguishes a writer’s style). In this post I am going to talk about grammatical voice that describes the relationship between the action of a verb and its subject and object.

So, a sentence which demonstrates active voice has the subject as the doer:

John stroked the cat

John is the subject carrying out the action and is therefore the agent of the action. The cat is the object of the action. Two passive sentences are embedded within this active sentence:

The cat was stroked

Here the cat is the passive subject of the sentence and the agent of the action is not mentioned.

The cat was stroked by John

Here, also, the cat is the passive subject but now the agent of the action is revealed using a ‘by’ phrase.

Simple. Indeed, Stephen King explained it very simply: ‘With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence.’


So why choose one or the other?

Well, I regret to say that there has been a strange and recent trend against the use of the passive. Many writing tutors now recommend the exclusive use of active sentences since they are clearer. In the above active example, the active subject (John) is carrying out the action and the object (the cat) is experiencing the action. On the other hand, in the passive equivalent, the cat experiencing the action becomes the passive subject and John the agent is relegated to the end of the sentence.


Such passivity on the part of the doer is currently frowned upon. In The Elements of Style (2005), Strunk and White suggest that ‘The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive’, which tends to be ‘less direct, less bold, and less concise’, although they do concede that the passive voice ‘is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary’. Here are some examples of the convenient/necessary use of the passive. In most cases the agent of the action is undisclosed:

1. Where the agent of the action is assumedThe minority party was voted into power.

2. Where convention demands that the agent of the action does not need to be mentionedThe results were tabulated and statistical analysis was undertaken.   This kind of passive voice is typical of scientific reporting, which is expected to be objective and impersonal. The identity of the agent of the action is usually confined to the authorship citation.

3. Where the agent of the action is not important enough to warrant mentionThe city streets were scrubbed clean for the king’s visit.   The active version of this would be – A nameless force of municipal employees scrubbed the city streets clean for the king’s visit.

4. Where the thing that is having the action done to it is more important than the agent(s) of the actionThe Hubble Spacecraft was launched on April 24, 1990.   The awkward active equivalent of this would be – A nameless team of scientists and technicians launched the Hubble Spacecraft on April 24, 1990.

Hubble_Space_Telescope_HST_courtesy_of_NASA    malko

5. Where the agent of the action is unknownMiss Grey here told us that she did not see or speak to any stranger on the day that Sir Carmichael Clarke was murdered (Agatha Christie, The ABC Murders) OR  The Mona Lisa has been stolen.

6. Where the agent of the action is nebulousMany solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper … (Douglas Adams, Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).   This form is frequently used in business and commerce –  The New York Stock Exchange was founded in 1817.

7. Where the action needs to be depersonalized – Normal services will be resumed as soon as possible.

george-orwell-bbc8. Where the speaker prefers that the agent of the action should be concealedThe chocolates have all been eaten.   This potential for obfuscation was one of the reasons why George Orwell (Politics and the English Language, 1946) criticized the use of passive sentences, ie sentences which removed blame/accountability and divorced cause from effect.  He called them ‘swindles and perversions’ where the ‘passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active’ (oops, that’s a passive sentence isn’t it, George?).

In some instances the hidden agency of action can be revealed using a by clause. Such constructions, whereby the agent of the action is demoted to the end of the sentence results in the focus also being demoted:

The minority party was voted into power by a largely misinformed electorate.

This delay in revealing the agent of the action might be used to increase suspense at the level of the sentence. Occasionally it will be employed for the purposes of rhetoric:

The married woman’s significance can only be conferred by the presence of a man at her side

(Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch)


Confusions and Misconceptions

Occasionally there is confusion between passive sentences that have to be and to have auxiliaries as part of a passive construction:

The book will be published in June
They have been chosen as representatives

and active sentences that have the auxiliary verbs to be and to have as tense constructs:

Jane will be happy to see you
Jack has been fishing
Jason will have already been living there for two weeks

It is difficult to understand this confusion since the auxiliaries are and have and the linking/copular verb forms that declare existence or condition (I think therefore I am; Jane is happy; Jack is a dentist), are essential parts of active language.

Wordiness and Sloppiness

The confusion over passive sentences and active sentences containing auxiliary verbs has led some commentators to suggest that frequent use of the verb to be, which is an essential component of a passive construction, can result in wordiness. It is further suggested that this introduction of unnecessary words can interfere with the pace of a text. Well … apart from the fact that that is an utterly absurd conclusion, I feel obliged to point out that passive constructions often require fewer words than their active equivalents, which is why they are recommended in scientific reporting.

Some commentators have suggested that passive constructs produce an unclear and sloppy text and recommend avoiding the passive voice because it is weak and circuitous. Speaking about passive constructions Stephen King says:

‘I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with … I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty.’ (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.)


On the other hand, the use of passive forms has been cited as an indication of literariness in a text, as evidence of writerly sophistication:

So a whimsical fate ordered that her hat should be taken off, veil and all attached, and placed upon his head …’ (Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd)

The servant who always brought the chocolate in the morning had found the bedroom door ajar and ultimately had ventured to look in. The bed had not been slept in.’ (Joseph Conrad, Suspense: a Napoleonic Novel)

So, at the level of narrative, does the frequent use of passive constructs create passive, ‘timid’ characters that are constantly having things happen to them rather than causing things to happen? Not really. But, if this were the case, how does a reader see such characters? What kind of emotions do they inspire? Empathy? Pity? Boredom? Harry Potter and Tess D’Urberville were pretty much passive characters in that they were victims of circumstance. Creative writing tutors will tell you that a protagonist must be at the heart of the action, driving it forward. Active, active, active … But, surely, passivity also has its place. There’s nothing more exciting than a character, presented as passive, who suddenly turns, grasps the moment and becomes active.

Well then, what to do? We are presented with a situation whereby style gurus both encourage and discourage the use of the passive voice. The answer is to turn away from dogma and really understand the nature of passive constructions and then use them to your advantage. Both active and passive constructions have their place in grammar and their role in language.

And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Recommended reading:
Baron, D.E. (1989). The Passive Voice Can be Your Friend. In Declining Grammar and Other Essays on the English Vocabulary.

King, S. (2000). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Simon & Schuster (Pocket Books), New York.

Strunk, W., White, E.B., Kalman, M. (2005). The Elements of Style. Penguin Press, New York,


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