The misunderstood passive: do we really need it?

By Heather Belgorodtseva, an EFL Teacher and Teacher Trainer. She can also be found writing about discourse analysis and online communication at Those Sharp Words.

If there’s one thing that everyone knows about academic writing, it’s that the passive voice shouldn’t be used. But why is this ban in place, and is it actually a valid criticism?

What is the passive?

The passive voice is a way of manipulating a sentence so that the doer of the verb is not the subject, does not kick off the sentence, so is less focused on. Thus Academics use the passive voice in their writing becomes The passive voice is used by academics in their writing.

One of the arguments against the passive is that it makes a text more long-winded and less readable. After all, the second sentence above is three whole words more verbose than the first.

In fact, the passive can make a text more readable by improving its cohesion and coherence.

Gluing texts together

To test this theory I took an extract from a well-regarded academic paper, Central Europe as Ground Zero of the New International Order (Wheatley, 2019, p. 902, first full paragraph), and changed it to remove all the passive sentences. In the original there were five passive verb forms from a total of ten.

Of course, changing the text, meant changing the subjects of the sentences and clauses and it is noticeable that the text with the passives was able to keep the focus on the two themes of the title more consistently — these were overwhelmingly the subject of each sentence. In the no passives text, the topics were more scattered. Removing the passive sentences did not improve the text, in short.

I should also say that passives were not used with abandon in other sections of the paper — this was a stylistic choice which worked for the information being discussed at that point.

So the passive can be used to make sure that the text, or part of a text, remains about what it is supposed to be about. However, it can also be used to help guide a reader though an argument.

In English, established information tends to come at the beginning of a sentence, and newer information at the end. This means we can trace a line of thought as it is built from sentence to sentence:

Our survey found that when carrying out personal admin many respondents prefer email over telephone calls. Telephone calls were reported to be more demanding of emotional energy because they involve real time interaction with others. Real time interaction in an email is minimal, and minimizes the pressure to perform. Because of this, many people said they go to some lengths to avoid conducting personal business by telephone.

Again, having a (one) passive sentence works well in this text to keep the flow going.

A bad reputation

So if the problem is not really readability, what is it? I think one of the main reasons why passives are disfavoured in modern writing is its reputation as a way of misdirecting attention.

To be clear, this is a reputation that is absolutely deserved. When Ronald Regan, to take just one politician who has used this phrase, said Mistakes were made in 1987 about a political scandal, people found it shocking. It was shocking because of the way it sidestepped either taking or assigning responsibility. The use of the passive seemed to remove the idea that human agency had anything to do with it at all. The event simply… happened. How… unfortunate.

Since then the correlation with the passive and this sort of deliberate and dishonest ambiguity has only increased. So embedded is this usage of the passive in people’s minds that they sometimes ascribe any softening of a message to the passive voice, even if it is not actually grammatically passive in any way.

Relevance to academic writing

What this has meant for academic writing in English is a re-examination of how far authors need to or should hide behind a reserved anonymity, and is also linked to the issue of properly giving credit to others in the field.

For example, looking at just one review of published academic papers by David Banks (2017), it seems that personal pronouns ‘I’ and even more so ‘we’ might be on the rise, especially in references to mental processes and choices made about the research being described. Perhaps because of the increasing desirability of being seen to take responsibility for one’s own work?

Such direct references can also help the reader to distinguish the research under discussion in the paper from that of others — the passive tends to be used more to describe the research that forms the background to the paper. The danger there is in accidentally obscuring the fact that this background does not simply exist, but was discovered or written about by someone else. It might be better to save general statements or the passive for things which are truly universally agreed upon in the field (It has been found that…) rather than more novel observations that should be clearly ascribed to a specific researcher (Janet Smith found that….).

Is the passive misunderstood?

Yes, it is. People misidentify it, misidentify what it is for, misidentify its usefulness. Can it be misused? Yes, of course it can. It can indeed be part of badly-written, hard-to-read texts, and it can be used to misdirect, whether on purpose or by accident.

The point about using the passive in an academic or any other text is not to avoid it completely though, but to use it well. Sparingly if you like, but well when it is necessary. I hope this discussion has given some insight in how to do so.

The Academic Writing Center at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provides writing support to everyone involved in research.

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