8

In my native language (Indonesian), the passive form is used as frequently as the active form, if not more often. So I read passive sentence in English without problem. I also see it more convenient to use the passive form when the subject in the active form is not important in the sentence, and there are lots of cases for that. Why do English speakers usually distaste passive sentence and often advise me to use more active sentences? I would love to hear some background culture influence or thinking process so I can understand it deeper. Thanks.

  • 1
    That's something that only Willam Strunk and purists would say!!! You are right, passive is better when the agent is not important. Also, read this Pullum's paper – user178049 May 22 '17 at 5:07
  • 3
    I think this is a very good question for ELL, because it's about something very puzzling for many non-native speakers: why all the fuss about the passive voice? As the OP says, the question is about "background culture". It's not about what kinds of constructions the grammar has passive forms of. – Ben Kovitz May 22 '17 at 6:01
  • 2
    @Laure in my native Indonesian language, which emphasise on excessive eastern-politeness culture, we usually use passive form when we want to focus the subject on the object, and lift the "responsibility" or "burden" from the subject. So instead of asking "Why you opened the door?" we ask "Why is this door opened?" --> which can mean that we do not judge anybody for why this door was opened (or maybe we just don't know who open the door at the first place, so we use passive form to omit that). – Chen Li Yong May 22 '17 at 6:24
  • 1
    @Laure That is the cultural background of why my language uses more passive sentence than active, and it's somewhat like become a second nature when forming a sentence in English for me. So I would like to know the same in English speakers, so I can internalise it and possibly can get rid of passive voice when forming English sentence if I understand what it meant for English speakers to prefer to write in active than passive. – Chen Li Yong May 22 '17 at 6:25
  • 2
    @ChenLiYong As a native Malay speaker, I strongly agree with the idea that "why is the door open? " sounds more polite than "Why did you open the door?". I think this question is too broad, but it's indeed good question! :) – user178049 May 22 '17 at 6:56
5

Here's what happened.

The Golden Age

Once upon a time, people throughout the English-speaking world used the active voice and the passive voice according to whichever seemed to suit what they were trying to say. No one attached moral opprobrium to either, the people were happy, and there was peace throughout the land.*

Some human pursuits, such as administration and science, needed to make heavy use of the passive voice, because these pursuits are largely concerned with rules and results that are independent of the person who carried them out. Any competent member of the civil service should produce the same results given the same rules as any other. "The claimant's petition for a hunting license is denied, pursuant to §12345.67(g) of the Hunting Code." The result of a scientific experiment should depend on what was done, not who did it. "0.5 gm tin was heated to 15,000,000 ºC." Mentioning the name of the lab assistant who heated it would distract from the important facts, so the passive voice is appropriate. Similarly for bank tellers, accountants, optometrists, engineers, etc.

The language used by people in these pursuits was, and still is, precise, formal, and objective—"objective" in the sense that the person who "did" the action is irrelevant. The relationship between writer and reader is impersonal. You don't negotiate with administrators or scientists, finding a compromise between your and their unique desires and situations. They merely report results. And these people get a lot of prestige and respect.

The Fall

It gradually dawned on people that if they wanted to sound formal and objective—and to get some of the respect given to professionals—they could use the passive voice even when it doesn't make sense or help communicate a thought. "It is imperative that steps are delineated for the establishing of time frames for socioeconomic priorities by responsible authorities." Similarly for highly abstract language, heavy use of the verb "to be", "big words" that derive from Latin, and other usage that's often needed legitimately in technical professions. When applied to most ordinary writing, such stylistic choices make the writing weak and unclear. "With regard to my summer vacation, the locations visited were felt to be memorable for a lifespan." I made up these last two examples as absurd parodies, but people were indeed imitating the sound of formal writing rather than using its conventions to communicate clearly.

By around 1910, many English teachers had noticed that students were resorting to pretentious, dull phrasing in their writing in an attempt to sound educated or formal. So they started advising their students to cut it out. Some produced pamphlets containing advice on how to write more clearly and forcefully. Today, the most famous of these is Strunk & White, a little handbook of advice to counter various bad stylistic choices that were common among college students in the early 20th century.

The Plot-Twist

Now here's where our story starts to turn weird. Many schoolteachers are themselves the kind of people who maintain the stability of their society by upholding strict rules. They try to measure the performance of their students fairly and in conformity with the professional standards of their time, not according to their own "subjective" judgement. This has led schoolteachers many times to reduce good advice that requires thoughtful case-by-case judgement to foolish strict rules. Strict rules, foolish or not, are much easier to teach, enforce, and measure conformity to than good judgement. Good judgement is something you gradually cultivate, and it emerges in a unique form in each individual. No standardized test can measure that.

Once it had emerged among the most respected English teachers that the passive voice was often abused, rank-and-file schoolteachers began to "teach" that the passive voice was not just easy to abuse, but wrong. It's not just unclear, it's an attempt to dodge moral responsibility! Indeed the passive has always been the voice of choice for weasels, responsibility-dodgers, and obscurantists. George W. Bush famously said "He heard a bird flush, and he turned and pulled the trigger and saw his friend get wounded." That's Bush's way of saying "Dick Cheney shot his friend Harry Whittington with a rifle in a hunting accident" but taking care that you don't understand it. There's no limit to the number of examples of this kind of weaselly use of the passive voice that you can find to prove that the passive is evil. Of course, you can find just as many dishonest uses of every other grammatical form, too. People use the active voice to outright lie, but only the passive voice is the target of a moral crusade.

And so, every passive construction in an essay written by a student would be marked "passive" in red ink, with points taken off. Excuse me, I mean the schoolteachers would mark every passive construction that the student wrote and take points off. Whew, I almost sank into moral depravity for a moment there. Even when passive constructions specified the agent, as in "Harry Whittington was shot by Dick Cheney", teachers would mark it in red and penalize it. Many innocent constructions that merely look similar to the passive but aren't, like "The truck is now loaded," also got marked in red and penalized. It was like the Salem witch trials of 1692, only with a lot more red ink spilled.

Upon graduating high school or college, students were trained to spot anything that looked passive-ish and excise it. Or exorcise it. When desktop computers became commonplace, even grammar-checking software joined in the anti-passive frenzy—automatically marking every passive-ish-looking verb with a red underline and telling the user to change it to active voice. Computers, of course, are the ultimate in following rules without regard to common sense.

The End (not)

And that, dear Chen Li Yong, is why some English speakers (think they) don't like the passive voice. But we're not all like that. Actually, most people don't care. Most people still choose the passive or active according to whichever seems to suit what they're trying to say, without even thinking about it. Many teachers try to cultivate good judgement in their students, and many people do their best to exercise good judgement in writing, choosing the active or passive voice not by any simple rule but according to what's relevant, what they want to emphasize, what's clear, and what sounds good. Even anti-passive activists use the passive voice all the time (without noticing). It comes up in classes and writing guides more than in real life. The only real trouble is that when many people talk about how to revise a sentence, the mythology they were taught makes it hard to converse about it intelligently.

But wait, the story's not over. Many people have noticed that all this fuss over the passive voice is absurd. A new anti-anti-passive activism is on the rise among academics. Even now, they're crafting a new mythology: about how the passive voice became anathema. They're blaming Strunk & White for making a rule against it, which Strunk & White never did. New prescriptions are justified with "science" and Google Ngrams rather than custom, precedent, taste, and reasonable opinion. Even now, new forms of faux objectivity are taking root. Instead of resorting to the passive voice, students who want to sound "objective" today report facts by explicitly stating their source even when the source is irrelevant. In another ten years, probably another substitute for choosing words thoughtfully will arise, and reasonable people will ignore that, too.

The Moral of the Story

So how does this affect you, a non-native speaker learning English?

Well, now you know that some of what you are taught about English is nonsense. Now you know that respected authorities contradict each other.

My advice is to ignore the advice to eschew the passive, and remember that the anti-passive activists are the crazy ones, not you. The passive voice is nearly always used innocently. It has many common uses, and is actually indispensible in English. Crusading against the passive voice because it can be abused makes as much sense as crusading against the present tense or the third person; those can be and are abused, too.

But you could reasonably disagree with my advice. As you gain mastery of English, you should gradually become more confident in choosing how you want to use the language. You should explore different forms of expression, read a variety of authors, see how flexible the grammar really is, and develop your own style through experience—just as every native speaker does.


*Actually, England was at war almost continuously during this time. This is a fable. Historical facts have been adjusted where necessary to support the moral. There never was a Golden Age, not even in regard to English grammar.

  • 1
    Thank you for a well written and concise answer! Oh, now I understand that people usually abuse passive voice to give half-truth, thinking that if they were given an active voice version of it, the person wouldn't be able to conceal the last part of the passive forms (for example, who shot?). I now realised that in my country, people are also usually abuse the passive voice to deliver half-truth as well, but nobody raise up the matter. I agree that I should have my own judgement in my mastery of English of whether I should use active or passive form depends on the context. Thank you very much! – Chen Li Yong May 23 '17 at 4:07
  • @ChenLiYong Thank you for calling my answer concise! ;) Actually, the passive voice is most frequently used quite innocently. It has many common uses; it's actually indispensible in English. I didn't explain the ordinary uses of the passive voice in this answer, or it would have been twice as long! (I will add some of this comment to the answer, though.) – Ben Kovitz May 23 '17 at 4:25
  • 1
    Ben a pleasure to read! As answers go, it does have it's flaws - it's highly opinioned, inaccurate at times, long, etc., etc. but it's also wonderfully funny, deeply insightful at times, and cleverly constructed. I think this answer is more suitable to people with a lot of expertise in English and not as suitable for learners, but I personally enjoyed it immensely! – Brillig May 24 '17 at 15:04
  • @Brillig Thanks! I agree: it's opinionated and the style is too much for most learners. I'd like to see more answers to this question: it is an important topic for learners, to get some awareness of the cultural ferments and fevers that surround this topic and how they distort the teaching they receive and even the advice they sometimes get from native speakers. There must be many good ways to answer it. – Ben Kovitz May 24 '17 at 17:53
  • Ben, it's clearly important to you, and therefore natural for you to assume it would be important and interesting to everyone, but it could also be considered an overload of tangential information that ultimately distracts from the learning process. In terms of a Maslowian hierarchy, most learners are needing to gain security with their use of the language and perhaps some exploration of the next (emotional) level. Your comments are asking them to try and self-actualize, or at least address self-esteem needs, prior to addressing more fundamental needs. That's my opinion anyway. – Brillig May 24 '17 at 19:06
6

People recommend active voice over passive because, in general, active voice tends to result in sentences which are more concise and direct (short and easy to understand). For instance:

ACTIVE

  • I fixed the problem.
  • John borrowed five dollars.
  • Jesus wept.

Because of these qualities, active voice is generally preferred in business communication, in literary essays, and when the speaker wants to come across as more energetic.

However, passive voice also has it's place in the language, for instance, it is often preferable in scientific writings and when the subject is inferred, as you mention in your question: "Oranges are grown in warmer climates" is fine - it's completely unnecessary to say "Orange growers grow oranges in warmer climates." But other passive constructions have clear disadvantages to the active alternatives; for instance:

PASSIVE

  • The problem was fixed by me.
  • Five dollars were borrowed by John.
  • Weeping was done by Jesus.

As you mention in your comments there is in many countries a cultural preference against assigning responsibility, so passive construction is a way to avoid assigning any responsibility. Returning to my examples above:

PASSIVE (with no responsibility assigned)

  • The problem was fixed.
  • Five dollars were borrowed.
  • Weeping was done.

This type of responsibility-free construction is generally very annoying to native English speakers so I suggest you avoid it unless you don't like them and intentionally want to frustrate them. A native English speaker generally prefers that:

  • the first noun of a sentence be the agent
  • that the agent proceeds the action (verb) in the sentence
  • that any animation have an assigned agent (ie if weeping was done, who did it?)

Here is one study that was done on how language and responsibility interplay into how people think that may give you better insight on the differences between your view of the world and a typical native English speaker: http://www.scielo.cl/pdf/signos/v46n83/a06.pdf

  • 4
    I think you've written an instructive answer here, but I'm not sure I agree with the assertion that "responsibility-free construction is generally very annoying to native English speakers." Actually, that kind of sentence does have its time and place. (It can be a good approach in marital discussions, for example – "You never do the dishes" might elicit a more defensive and hostile response than "The dishes are often left undone".) – J.R. May 22 '17 at 21:47
  • 1
    Yes, I agree, and caveated that passive sentences have a place in English. However, the question clearly asked to give some insight on "background cultural influence or thinking process" of native English speakers that prefer active voice in contrast to the questioner's stated background of coming from a society which prefers passive voice and is more conscientiously polite in it's normal construction than typical English. I therefore wasn't concerned that he'd overlook opportunities to be polite using passive construction, and felt it was more important to answer his question head on. – Brillig May 22 '17 at 22:33
  • 1
    I might also add that comments like "the dishes are often left undone" are sometimes considered passive/aggressive and not recommended by psychological writers I have read; instead, they usually recommend something like "I feel frustrated when I so often find the dishes are not done." This sentence does not overly emphasize blame but it is an active construction, has a clear agent, the agent proceeds the action, etc. – Brillig May 22 '17 at 22:39
  • I upvote your answer because I find it reasonable. But I believe the choice is influenced by register and clarity. See my comment under the OP. – user178049 May 22 '17 at 23:15
  • Thanks. Like you, I'm not a fan of Strunk and White. I also recognize that many English speakers, even native speakers, struggle to understand active versus passive voice. Confusion abounds, making constructive discussion difficult. – Brillig May 23 '17 at 0:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.