Section 7: Active vs. Passive

To conclude Section 7, we want to offer an extended discussion of stylistic choice using active voice vs. passive voice.

Many instructors and writing style guides advise against using the passive structure. The passive structure can be rhetorically effective, however. The goal is to evaluate each use of the passive structure to ensure that it is effective and appropriate for a particular audience and purpose, in a particular genre and a particular context. Each use of the passive belongs to a unique context, and individual writers need to decide about the rhetorical effectiveness for using a passive structure.  

As a reminder, the passive is best identified as a grammatical structure: BE + [-en], and this auxiliary combination - BE + [-en] - identifies the passive structure, and when you are analyzing, this is the only thing that you need to look for. On the other hand, stylistically, active voice and passive voice describe the relationship between the subject and the verb in a sentence. Active voice refers to the subject as the entity that is doing the action:

Leonidas leads the men into battle.

In this sentence, we can identify Leonidas as the subject who is completing the action: he leads the men. Since the subject performs the action, we can identify this sentence as being in the active voice.

The men are led by Leonidas into battle.

In this sentence, the subject of the sentence is the men; however, notice the relation of the subject to the main verb phrase are led. In this situation, the men are not the ones conducting the action, but they are being affected by it. Leonidas is the doer whereas the men are passive characters that are moved to action by another entity. Because the men do not carry out the action themselves, we can identify this sentence as being in the passive voice.

NOTE: Leonidas conducts the action in both sentences, but what we have done in the second sentence is merely shift the attention away from the doer—Leonidas—to the direct object— the men—by inverting its position in the sentence. This, in short, is what makes the choice between active voice and passive voice a stylistic (rhetorical) choice.

This all means that using the passive should not be considered an error. It should also not automatically be considered a stylistic misstep. Instead, it should be be considered rhetorically effective when employed appropriately and judiciously. 

There are various reasons we may wish to use the passive, which include (but are not limited to) the following:

To create a better transition between sentences

Once numbering in the millions, Australia’s koala population has dwindled to about 400,000 as fur hunters [have taken] their toll. Today the koala is threatened by disease, road accidents and a steady shrinking of the eucalyptus forests, where the animal lives and feeds. (from Time, 17 September 1990)

It is because of these consequences of the Spiegel political affair that we propose here to examine it, with emphasis on the causes of the controversy and the responses of the political system to it. The meaning of the term “political affair”is largely conditioned by popular and journalistic usage. (adapted from Ronald F. Bunn’s German Politics and the Spiegel Affair)

Despite Snowden’s leaks, much of the public still misunderstands how the NSA works and what it does. In the past, the agency has welcomed this ignorance, since it helpd the government keep its secrets secure. (From Daniel Byman and Benjamin Wittes’ “Reforming the NSA”)

Notice how the subject of the second sentence was part of the predicate in the previous sentence. This places old information into the subject position to better connect sentences.

To emphasize (or draw attention to) the object. 

Thousands of citizens were affected by the fallout.

Emphasis on the citizens—the victims of the tragedy.

Thirty thousand telegrams were received by the White House on Friday.

Direct object of active sentence calls for more focus.

To mask a subject that is unknown.

In the wake of the panic, our car was stolen.

Who stole our car?

The dog was abandoned in the breakdown lane of the freeway?

Who abandoned the dog?

Agent is unknown.

Our mouthwash is preferred over all other brands.

Unknown possibly suggests a greater number of people.

To mask a subject that is (relatively) unimportant. 

They were born for this.

Yes, moms are important; however, it sounds awkward to say “Their mothers bore them for this.” Also, it can be assumed that, in almost all cases, someone gave birth to them.

To obscure an agent’s identity.

Our services are ranked #1!

We aren’t sure who ranks them as #1; however, it can create the illusion that a greater audience prefers the services than reality admits.

Sometimes, you may actually construct a sentence with a passive unconsciously, but as you edit, BE + [-en] signals you that a passive structure is there, and you can determine if that's the most effective rhetorical choice: to eliminate the agent of the action because the agent is unknown, to focus attention on the direct object of the verb (in the active sentence), or, when it is in the writer’s interest, to obscure the agent’s identity. As with any stylistic choice, however, it should always be deliberate and purposeful.