Reactivating the active voice

Reactivating the active voice

This article appeared under the same heading in PEGboard April 2018.

Reading time: 16 minutes

Generations of writers have had the merits and use of the passive voice drummed into them – no less in the academic and bureaucratic spheres, where the ‘authority’ with which one wrote was somehow seen to be bolstered by the extent to which one adhered to the ‘rules’ for using the passive voice. Not so any more: the active voice is in the ascendant.

 

How times – and appetites – have changed, though. A recent blog posted by The Economist stated:

Pity the passive voice. No feature of the grammar of English has such a bad reputation. Style guides, including that of The Economist, as well as usage books like the celebrated American "Elements of Style", warn writers off the passive, and automated grammar-checkers often suggest that passive clauses be redrafted.

Even in the international scientific community, the active voice is now encouraged because it identifies the actor immediately and lends itself to shorter, more direct sentences that are able to convey complex messages in a straightforward way to readers whose English proficiency is wide-ranging.

 

While there are some undoubted merits to the passive voice, the problem of its usage presents itself in four main ways:

 

  • verb usage (ie the insertion of a form of the verb to be together with a past participle);
  • agentless passives (we are not told who takes the action);
  • word order (subject–object reversal);
  • the use of nominalisations (nouns formed from other parts of speech).

Each of these is described and illustrated in this article. It should be the task of the text editor to convert as much passive voice as practicable and necessary to the active voice in order to help convey an author’s message more simply and clearly.

 

But first let’s clear up any confusion between tense and voice. Tense has to do with when things happen in time; voice structures who did what to whom in a sentence. A typical active construction is one where the doer of an action is in the subject position in the sentence, that is, before the verb.

 

A passive construction is one where the receiver of the action is in the subject position. For example, teacher in these two sentences (Manning Murphy 2011: 108):

 

The teacher kicked the ball. (teacher = doer, in the subject position before the verb)

The teacher was kicked by the school bully. (teacher = receiver, in the subject position)

 

The subject position is where we regularly put the topic or key noun phrase of the sentence – the bit we want to emphasise or we want the reader to grasp immediately as to what the sentence is about (Manning Murphy 2011: 108).

 

Passive verbs are formed with the verb to be, or informally sometimes with to get, and the –en or –ed form (past participle) of another verb: was kicked in the sentence above (Kahn 1985: 18).

 

 

Verb usage and agentless passives

The result of worshipping at the high altar of the passive voice is constructions such as these (GMEU 2016: 676, 677):

 

The deadline was missed by the applicant.

The examination was undertaken.

Her leave application was approved.

I heard it suggested by a friend that too many books appear with endnotes.

It is felt that you have no grounds for complaint.

There are no educational background requirements for taking the examination.

The prisoners were ordered to be shot.

 

In the first of these sentences, the natural subject–verb–object order has been reversed, and the verb missed has been replaced by the verb phrase was missed by (past tense form of to be + the past participle missed + by).

 

In the second and third, not only has the same happened, but in addition the actor or agent has been obscured by omission, leaving the reader rather ‘up in the air’, not knowing who undertook the examination, who approved the application or who ordered the shooting.

 

The absurdity of these ‘agentless passive’ constructions should also not be lost on editors and readers: can a deadline miss?; is an examination able to undertake? Of course not! And that’s precisely what leads to such constructions being unfathomable.

 

Sentence 4 starts off active (‘I heard it’), but in actual fact the sentence is passive, containing as it does the implied verb being after it and the actor-subject friend: ‘A friend suggested to me that …’ or ‘Recently I heard a friend suggest that …’

(GMEU 2016: 676).

 

Sentences 5 and 6 begin with ‘It is …’ and ‘There are …’. These constructions should be avoided because they invariably introduce passive constructions, usually with an absent agent (who felt? who doesn’t require an educational background?).

 

The absent-agent passive is often used to conceal the identity of a person who is responsible for something unpleasant (Kahn 1985: 19), and perhaps only then is it justified.

 

Sentence 7 is an example of a double passive – one passive immediately following another: Two absent agents (who ordered the shooting? who is to do the shooting?) are bad enough, apart from which it sounds almost as if the prisoners ordered their own execution, absent the actors! In ‘He ordered the prisoners to be shot’ the first passive has been made active, and the sentence becomes more, if not totally, comprehensible (GMEU 2016: 677).

 

The faulty double passive is common with the verbs attempt, begin, desire, hope, intend, propose, threaten and omit: ‘The contract is proposed to be cancelled’; ‘The grant is threatened to be withdrawn’; ‘It is hoped to start the new year afresh’ (Kahn 1985: 19). That it makes writing even denser and less accessible is illustrated by this example:

 

‘Had the new vaccine been intended to have been injected into the patient, he would have been warned to avoid drinking alcohol.’

 

Here, a possible ‘active’ revision could be:

 

‘If the new vaccine had been intended for injection into the patient, he would have been warned to avoid drinking alcohol’ (GMEU 2016: 676).

 

Agentless passives are allowable provided the reader will certainly know who or what is performing the action, or if it is relevant, as in:

 

My house was burgled last night.

 

Here it is hardly necessary to say ‘by burglars’ or ‘Burglars burgled my house last night’ (Manning Murphy 2011: 99).

 

 

Word order: another facet of the passive

A standard simple sentence written in the active voice will consist of actor/subject, verb and object (SVO), in that order:

 

The applicant missed the deadline for submissions.

 

This way, having identified the actor, the reader can most readily make sense of the message being conveyed: who missed what? But when the word order is reversed (as in the passive voice, ‘the deadline was missed by the applicant’), the sentence and the intended meaning are much less accessible and therefore less easy to fathom.

 

Using the test of the Plain Language Movement for the accessibility of text – if a sentence has to be read more than once to understand its meaning, it has failed – such passive-voice constructions will fail their readers.

 

The text editor must therefore render them in the active voice as far as possible, especially where the reversal of sentence order has no evident purpose (Turk & Kirkman 1996: 110). The correct SVO order usually converts verbs into the active voice.

 

But where there is a sound reason for a reversal – for example, to provide emphasis by bringing to the head of the sentence the thing acted on – then by all means leave the construction passive (Kahn 1985: 19; Turk & Kirkman 1996: 110).

 

 

Nominalisations (nounisms): passive’s co-conspirators in obfuscation

Consider this example:

 

The globalisation of travel and tourism has led to the employment of millions more airline operatives in the service of passengers globally. The recent referral by the UN report to this phenomenon has put it under the spotlight.

 

Typical of much business, academic, technical, political and bureaucratic writing nowadays, these sentences contain numerous nominalisations (italicised), that is, the turning of verbs (or adjectives) into nouns. For example:

 

accrue   →   accrual

correspond   →   correspondence

decide   →   decision

discuss   →   discussion

employ   →   employment

extend   →   extension

global   →   globalisation

invite   →   invitation

operate   →   operative

radical   →   radicalisation

refer   →   referral

serve   →   service

 

This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. However, nominalisations are generally longer words than the root forms plus they tend to embed themselves in three-word phrases – took the decision (decided), the radicalisation of (radicalise), etc – which leads both to excessively wordy sentences and to a blurring of the author’s intended meaning because of a lack of crisp, active verbs. Take, for example, this simple, active-voice sentence:

 

The probe measured the internal diameter.

 

If ‘measure’ is replaced by ‘measurement’ and the sentence, becomes passive as a result, we end up with the much less effective construction (Turk & Kirkman 1996: 108):

 

Measurement of the internal diameter was performed by the probe.

 

The writer cannot write ‘measurement was measured’, so they have to find another verb – with a neutral meaning – to replace the one that has been nominalised, with sometimes strange effects (Turk & Kirkman 1996: 108):

 

Passive + nominalisation

The treatment was undertaken …

Analysis was performed …

 

Active + verb

The solution was treated with …

The data were analysed …

 

This next active sentence containing nominalisations illustrates an important point about such constructions:

 

Certification is most often required for the production of a particular type of translation.

 

According to Turk and Kirkman (1996:109), over-nominalised writing ‘becomes tiring and flat: more effort is required to disentangle the roundabout structures which result, the meaning is spread more thinly, and the passive structures with meaningless general-purpose verbs rob the writing of its impact and energy’.

 

Compare the previous sentence with this active rewrite:

 

To produce a particular type of translation, most often the translator must be certified.

 

As a general rule, then, verbs are more dynamic than the nouns derived from them, so it is better to use the verbs (Manning Murphy 2011: 177).

 

 

Noun strings compound the problem

As Mackenzie (2011: 101) reminds us, the long strings of nouns that often accompany the passive voice and nominalisations have a deadening effect, and the reader cannot see how they relate to each other until he reaches the main noun at the end:

 

a service delivery improvement programme  →   a programme to improve the delivery of services

 

the Reserve Bank interest rate cut proposal  →   the Reserve Bank’s proposal to cut interest rates

 

Notice how rephrasing the noun strings to include verbs and prepositions (and even relative pronouns) makes the constructions readable.

 

Taken together, these features of the passive voice, while they are commonplace in so much writing nowadays, simply render texts less accessible to readers and therefore require text editors to intervene almost surgically to extract the author’s hidden meaning. As text editors, we must not shrink from our duty to readers to deliver texts that are comprehensible at first reading. And we must do so actively, not passively.

References

Baker, S ‘Scholarly style, or the lack thereof’ (1956) in Perspectives on Style 64, 66 (Frederick Candelaria ed, 1968), cited in GMEU page 677.

 

The Economist 30 June 2016 Passive panic. https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2016/06/30/passive-panic (Accessed 3 October 2021).

 

Garner, BA 2016 Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU). New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Kahn, J 1985 The Right Word at the Right Time: A Guide to the English Language and how to Use It. Reader’s Digest.

 

Mackenzie, J 2011 The Editor’s Companion 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

Manning Murphy, E 2014 Effective Writing; Plain English at Work. Australia: Lacuna Publishing.

 

Manning Murphy, E 2011 Working Words. Australia: Lacuna Publishing.

 

Turk, C, Kirkman, J 1996 Effective Writing: Improving Scientific, Technical and Business Communication 2nd edition. Spon Press.

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