Mike’s blog: The wayward subject: an object lesson in passive voice


We are delighted to welcome Michael P. Bischoff, radio news reporter at 620 WTMJ, who will be blogging with us this summer.

Michael, who studied film production at UWM, is also a founding member and one of the principal writers and actors in Milwaukee Comedy’s Variety Hour Happy Hour, a sketch comedy show.

In the past, Michael has written articles for Third Coast Digest (now Urban Milwaukee Dial) and was a featured blogger for Milwaukee Magazine. His short story, A Room In New York. 1932., was published in Skive Magazine (Australia) in 2009. A lifelong Wisconsinite, Michael resides in Bay View.


If you’re the sort of person who enjoys watching heads explode (and really, who isn’t?), next time you’re hanging out with a composition instructor or a high school English teacher, utter these two words, grab a bowl of popcorn and take a seat: passive voice.

Their dander shall remit itself to the upright, locked position.

After a few semesters of reading limp, lifeless essays and prose, chances are you’d learn to sympathize.

Passive Versus Active

The passive voice is the writing equivalent of the Monday morning commute. Writing in the active voice, by comparison, makes an essay/paper/story read like it’s leaving work early ahead of a four-day weekend.

Think of a sportscast. The immediacy of action dictates the immediacy of voice. A listener might very well hear the following during a baseball game:

Carpenter with the pitch. It’s just a bit outside, and that’s ball four. He couldn’t hit the corner with the fastball.

Nothing out of the ordinary there, the subjects and verbs in time with the action and paint a clear portrait of the action.

Now, while the pitching coach comes out to discuss that walk, let’s read the same thing, but in the passive voice:

The pitch is thrown by Carpenter, and the ball is caught, but outside, and ball four is called by the umpire. The corner could not be hit by his fastball.

Yikes, we may have to go to the bullpen.

So what exactly is the problem with the second sentence?

It isn’t technically wrong, and it conveys the identical information as the first, active-voiced sentence. But it does so in a wayward, meandering manner.

That’s the problem with passive sentences: they are also lazy sentences. They know there’s an object and a subject, but they aren’t terribly concerned about which is which.

It’s all about clarity

Let’s compare the first sentences of each example (with a slight modification, just to avoid that preposition moonlighting as a verb):

Carpenter throws the pitch.

Pretty clear, right? Our subject, “Carpenter,” leads the way, letting us know whom we’re talking about. He “throws,” to let us know what he’s doing, and because we’re completists “the pitch” lets us know what object has been thrown.

The pitch is thrown by Carpenter.

This sentence wants to trick us. It has introduced “the pitch” as the actor. The listener has to backtrack and rearrange the sequence once it’s revealed “Carpenter” is the one actually directing the action. Let’s change it slightly:

The pitch is thrown.

You can’t always depend on the green squiggly line to tell you when your sentences are passive.

The above is less a sentence and more an independent clause, but your grammar checker will see a perfectly fine sentence, incorrectly assuming “thrown” is an adjective to describe the pitch.

If a sentence doesn’t answer the question “By whom?” it is a passive sentence.

The writing center at UNC-Chapel Hill has a couple of handy guidelines for identifying and correcting passive sentences. In short, any sentence that uses form of “to be” (is, are, was, will be, etc.) combined directly with a past participle is taking a one-way trip to passive town.

But wait!  Aren’t there any situations where the passive voice is the better option?

Indeed, there are limited instances where writing passively is acceptable, or even preferable, but it depends upon context.

Consider the following two sentences:


The Packers defense intercepted Jay Cutler four times.


Jay Cutler was intercepted four times [by the Packers defense].

Either sentence could lead a paragraph describing Jay Cutler’s interceptions, but the correct choice depends on the context of the discussion.

The active-voiced sentence tells us we’re going to be talking about the Packers defense. That Jay Cutler was the individual throwing the interceptions is incidental to the fact the defense intercepted them.

However, if our aim is to question Jay Cutler’s shortcomings as a quarterback, the Packers defense is less important, even though it is what perpetrated the intercepting. That paragraph might look something like this:

Jay Cutler was intercepted four times Sunday night. He showed a lack of patience as the game wore on, forcing passes into coverage and taking unnecessary risks…

The rest of the paragraph immediately reverts to the active voice after establishing Jay Cutler as the topic of discussion. Point being, while sparing and deliberate use of the passive voice is forgivable, it’s the writer’s job to add clarity.

In most circumstances, we can faithfully adhere to Orwell’s fourth rule of political writing: the active voice is preferable to the passive voice wherever possible. The devil is in developing the critical eye to recognize it, hiding in plain sight within the body of a text. It takes a little bit of work and patience, but your writing (not to mention your TA/English teacher/composition instructor) will be better off for the effort.

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