Note that passive voice is more prevalent and accepted in some disciplines (e.g. some sciences, public policy) than others. (Writing Studio (pdf), Duke University)

Why is it okay not to use the definite article before phrases like "passive voice"? Is it because they turn into a kind of proper noun?

In a recent Economist article it is "the passive voice", the same in a less recent one.

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    This is going to be good. Only temerity prevents me from stabbing at things like deletion. I'll wait and bookmark the answer, thank you. There is guidance here, though. – P. E. Dant Jul 27 '16 at 5:58
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    Aha! The zero article! The algo that returns "Related" articles (over there --->) is wicked sharp sometimes. Props to the developers. – P. E. Dant Jul 27 '16 at 6:49

Before we get to the sentence in question, let's look at the first use of passive voice in the article. One way to do that is to read each of the headings in the article:

Express actions in verbs

Avoid strings of prepositional phrases

Choose clear subjects

Favor active voice over passive voice, using passive-voice constructions with intent

Avoid beginning sentences with expletive constructions

and so forth.

All of these are instructions. They are not unlike instructions found in a recipe:

Preheat oven to 375
Peel carrots
Coat cake pan with butter, then dust with flour

In instructions, articles are often dispensed with.

So what's going on in

Note that passive voice is more prevalent and accepted in some disciplines (e.g. some sciences, public policy) than others. [?]1

I don't particularly like this non-use of the definite article here. Perhaps the writer sticks with it because he/she has used it in the heading, which we have seen is an instruction. When we have to start questioning why a "Writing Studio" on Clarity and Conciseness has written something in a certain way and there is no explanation, I wonder how great a style sheet on better writing it is.

The anarthrous use of passive voice can be thought of as an ellipsis for (the) passive voice ((construction)). I am not too happy with that idea, because it seems all too easy to explain certain uses by recourse to the E-word. But passive voice does have a kind of, sort of-ish "proper noun"-like role here. We don't usually use definite articles with proper nouns (except when part of a name: the UK), since a proper noun is already identifying which thing we are talking about. But I don't like this explanation. What I do like is to look at passive voice and active voice as two modes a sentence can have. Not in the grammatical sense, but more like in the electric shaver sense. The electric shaver is either on or off, and

Note that on is more prevalent [than off] in some disciplines...

is one way of looking at it: both passive voice and active voice are two "binary modes," like on and off.

Driving with heater is more prevalent than driving with air-conditioner in some climates.

Speaking of driving, let's switch gears and look at the first Economist usage you give:

Pity the passive voice.

This looks like an instruction. If it is, then why does it use the article? Didn't I just say that in instructions we often omit the article. Well, yes, we often do. But not here when it is the opening line of an article (that other kind of article). If the article had opened with

Pity passive voice.

It would sound too much like like a telegram or a headline, and we've gotten past the headline here, although I can't get past the headline to your second Economist link because that's all I see there.

But when might this nifty three-word sentence be used? (pause for reflection) It might be used by a student who is taking notes while reading the article, or listening to an audio of the article. Since notetaking is another place we dispense with articles. Again, just as with proper proper nouns (no, that repeated word is not a typo), and with instructions, the article in notes can be done away with, precisely because the speaker/writer/reader knows which referent we're talking about. This grammatical explanation may not stand up to the most assiduous scrutiny, but consider

Open mouth, insert foot.

This is an instruction to oneself after making an idiot remark to someone. The self giving this instruction knows which mouth and which foot he/she's talking about.

I now return to

Note that passive voice is more prevalent and accepted in some disciplines (e.g. some sciences, public policy) than others.

If I were sitting in class and if these incredible writing tips were being lectured to me rather than written to me, I just might take a note and, just like for Pity passive voice, I might write down Note that passive voice... That is just one way to explain this usage, and if I recall correctly I've explored a couple other ways here too. But like I said, I'm not wild about the anarthrous usage here, and to me it would read much more naturally were the precede passive voice.

1 I feel like I should put a question mark somewhere, since I am asking a question (So what's going on in..?) but I dunno how or where, and I am not going to avoid the issue by using a work around.


It is okay to not use the before the phrase passive voice because we are discussing it conceptually, making use of the zero article (as @P.E.Dant is so kind to reference in their comment). This is as opposed to the definitive passive voice (using the) or indefinite passive voice (using a).

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