Is My Writing Too Passive?

Your Highness:

This letter is being written because I’ve been told that there is a problem with my writing. Specifically, a problem with the passive voice. But understanding this is difficult. I mean, my job is in marketing. I’m supposed to be good with words. And language has always come easily to me—out-of-the-box thinking is generated daily. What to do? Could there be a need here for creative destruction?

My dear Subject,

What are you hiding? I don’t mean to invoke the IRS, the CIA, or Dr. Freud—but I do wish to point out that overuse of passive verb construction in a given piece of writing often masks deeper issues lurking within the writer or subject.

But first let’s define “the passive voice.” According to the esteemed Chicago Manual of Style, “Voice shows whether the subject acts (active voice) or is acted on (passive voice)—that is, whether the subject performs or receives the action of the verb.”

So: The sentence The dog chewed on the bone is in the active voice—subject, verb, object. The bone was chewed by the dog is in the passive voice—the subject cowers, as it were, at the tail end of the sentence. Note that both versions are grammatically correct, and there are times in which the passive voice might be preferable—if one wishes to place emphasis on the object rather than the subject or action, for example. (For some guidelines on when the passive voice is appropriate, see the Capital Community College Foundation’s Guide to Grammar and Writing.)

Far more often, though, passive construction is a bad habit, picked up by association. After all, we’re surrounded by it, accosted by advertisers, politicians, and others in officialdom whose words have been massaged so they may duck responsibility for their actions (or at least the actions being visited upon us by the powers that be). This kind of language crops up often in the following situations:

  • Mendacity. The classic example here is “Mistakes were made,” uttered by Ronald Reagan in defense of his administration’s actions in the Iran-Contra scandal. No subject to the sentence? Voilà—no one to blame.
  • Underlying flabbiness of thought. Passive voice often crops up alongside business jargon, and their concurrence is no accident. It’s much more difficult to say what you mean, with clarity and rigor.
  • Discomfort with the message. Is that deliverable unable to be delivered… by you? Does that product you’re promoting that claims to be “98% calorie-free” contain 98% water plus 2% HFCS and Red Dye #2? Passive language often rears its head when we don’t want to take responsibility for what we’re saying.

Before you send that memo, read though it and weed out excess passivity. Look at your writing; look inside yourself. Then go forth and be active.

Yours precisely,
The Grammar Queen

By Lisa Stonestreet