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Grammarly.com keeps warning me about passive voice. For example, in the following sentence it tells that I misused passive voice.

The long-standing problem of anti-social behaviour of some youngsters should be solved. It cannot, however, be solved by confinement.

I do not know who should solve this problem. So I used passive voice. Is it wrong?

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    It's fine. Don't take grammar checkers too seriously. They are in their infancy
    – gotube
    Aug 17 at 6:48
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    I have more of a problem with the ambiguity of the sentence. Does it mean that someone should solve the problem, or that the problem should already be solved? Although the next sentence is only consistent with the first interpretation.
    – Barmar
    Aug 17 at 14:51
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    I don't see any rules being broken here. However, the object of the first sentence (the "long-standing problem of anti-social behavior of some youngsters") seems a little wordy-- like you're trying to pack too much information into the object's label. If you restructure the sentence so that it has only one instance of the word "of", I think it will help. For example: "The anti-social behavior of some youngsters is a long-standing problem that should be solved." Aug 17 at 19:22
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    It's the ambiguity pointed out by Barmar that makes the passive voice suboptimal in some situations. I write a lot of specifications and similar technical documents and forcing myself to use the active voice has helped me write more comprehensibly and precisely.
    – SimonN
    Aug 17 at 21:10
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    Changing 'should be solved' to 'needs solving' removes the ambiguity, but is still PV.
    – mcalex
    Aug 18 at 21:04
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Grammar checkers cannot know when the passive voice is appropriate or not. In many cases, they can't even identify the passive correctly. You should always treat such advice skeptically.

Even worse, simple-minded style guides like The Elements of Style have convinced many writers and educators that the passive voice is always bad, when of course that is false. So advice from native speakers about the passive voice cannot always be trusted.

You seem to have identified the appropriate guideline. If the agent of solve is irrelevant to the context or cannot be known, then the passive might be the best choice.

Furthermore, if the topic of the passage is problem, then a structure that makes problem the grammatical subject is probably a good choice.

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  • The very first sentences in Elements of Style are: "1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write write, Charles's friend Burns's poems the witch's malice Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names ending -es and -is, the possessive Jesus', and such forms as for conscience' sake, for righteousness' sake. But such forms as Moses' Laws, Isis' temple are commonly replaced by ..." Aug 19 at 3:55
  • I had to take a technical writing course in college where passive voice was strictly forbidden and that was the hardest thing about the course for me. The main reason given was that it was harder for non-native speakers to understand. While I think it's a good to learn how to write without (or limiting) passive voice, this is correct, passive voice is a totally normal part of English.
    – JimmyJames
    Aug 19 at 21:24
  • @JimmyJames do you understand anything about the motive for forbidding PV in that course?
    – OmarL
    Aug 20 at 9:32
  • @OmarL The only reason I recall was that according to teacher, readers whose first language is not English can find passive voice hard to understand. I'm not sure that's true in general but passive voice does add a lot of 'noise' in most cases. For example "the answer has been written by Jeffrey' versus 'Jeffery wrote the answer'. The passive version has extra words that don't really contribute to meaning and somewhat peculiar verb tense. There are phrases where passive voice adds meaning, though. I think the point in the course was becoming aware of how often we use passive voice.
    – JimmyJames
    Aug 20 at 13:30
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Your sentences are both fine. You could replace the second one with

Confinement, however, cannot solve it.

My opinion is that this is neither better nor worse than your version.

My suggestion would be to stop using Grammarly, or at least be prepared to ignore it occasionally.

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    I really like this. After a big, long passive voice sentence, a short, to the point, active voice sentence punches up the conclusion.
    – Flydog57
    Aug 18 at 18:34
  • Yes, it even "justifies" using the passive voice the first time around, to create a sort of suspense in the reader's mind: I wonder who will solve it. Answer: not confinement.
    – PatrickT
    Aug 20 at 8:55
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You could have written;

'Someone should solve the long-standing problem of anti-social behaviour of some youngsters. However, confinement is not the solution.'

I prefer your version of the first sentence. My suggestion for the second avoids repeating the 'be solved' construction. Sometimes repetition adds useful emphasis, sometimes it jars as merely repetitive. Your call!

(In the preceding paragraph, I first wrote 'My version of the second...' then changed it to 'My suggestion for the second...'. Do you see why? Do you agree? You don't have to!)

Word's grammar checker doesn't go in for this depth of analysis. It just detects a passive construction and flags it as possibly unnecessary. Very often this is a helpful heads-up. But it's a suggestion, not an instruction.

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    I find your example a bit weird, because your first sentence refers to a person, but the second refers to a methodology. The "however" seems a bit misplaced. Aug 18 at 11:24
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    Well, it's all very well bleating that a problem should be solved. But, when you come down to it, SOMEONE has to do the solving! All fair comment though, and way beyond the level of a grammar checker. Which was the main point. Aug 18 at 12:47
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    Someone can't solve societal problems.
    – RonJohn
    Aug 18 at 19:15
  • So who can? The proverbial 'they'? SomeONE can instigate a policy. Else why do we have politicians? (OK, don't answer that!) Aug 18 at 21:17
  • @LaurencePayne Don't get me wrong, I agree with you that the passive voice here sounds better. Aug 19 at 2:53
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Grammarly.com keeps warning me about passive voice. For example, in the following sentence it tells that I misused passive voice.

No, it just tells you that you used it. Grammarly does not have the capability of distinguishing proper use of passive voice from its misuse.

That said, I find the phrasing a bit awkward, but not because it's passive voice. A problem is, by definition, something that should be solved, so saying "this is a problem that should be solved" is redundant. Also, "some youngsters" is rather vague. A better phrasing would be "There is a long-standing problem of anti-social behavio[u]r among youngsters. This problem cannot, however, be solved by confinement."

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  • “A problem is, by definition, something that should be solved” – disagree. Many problems can, should, or need not be solved. “We might do A, but this would cause problems X and Y, so we do B instead.” “Attackers would have a lot of problems if they tried to breach our firewall.” “Finding an algorithm that does Z would amount to solving the halting problem.” Aug 19 at 13:54

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