As promised beforehand by the author, passive verbs will be covered by this blog entry. Now stop for a moment and examine that opening sentence. Does it sound like I’m trying to cover up something, to hide the person who really made such a pronouncement? Is it all a conspiracy of the PEople of Thought for Passive ExpErimentation of VerbiagE (PET PEEVE)? It may well be, but the point is actually to show the good, bad, and ugly of passive constructions.
Put succinctly, a passive verb means that an object, person, event, or thing is being acted upon. That is, the subject of the sentence (usually the main noun before the verb) doesn’t perform an action and, instead, has an action performed to it. Many times, you’ll know a passive construction when you see the word by following the verb—and less often, other prepositions. (You can also look for modals and forms of to be, but we won’t cover that here.)
The brilliant report was done by me.
However, this is not always the case. Passive clauses may not always use any signaling words.
As was mentioned, the report was finished.
In the sentence above, we have two passive constructions, though neither has a prepositional phrase tagged onto the end. Instead, the person who performed the action is simply implied but anonymous. We don’t know who mentioned this fact or who completed the report.
This anonymity is both the strength and weakness of passive verbs. There are times that either the agent of action is unknown or the agent is unimportant. In these cases, a passive construction may be preferred (and yes, I used it here as an example). The problem with removing passive verbs entirely from our repertoire is that there are times when they are more appropriate. For example, using indefinite pronouns when the agent isn’t known can make for a more confusing or less precise sentence.
Some unknown mystical person performed these calculations to come up with these astounding results.
If such a sentence were in a formal paper, it would weaken the credibility. If the agent isn’t known (like here), then you may have to use a passive construction.
On the other hand, passive verbs can also make the writing become unwieldy. A few passive clauses carefully sprinkled throughout can get around some difficult situations, but a paper or story filled with passivity strains the reader. This is mainly because either the reader questions the integrity of the writer/narrator (why aren’t they telling us who did what?) or because overusing passive verbs makes the reader notice the prose more.
That said, there is no need to seek and destroy all passive verbs from your writing. In fact, for those of you who have studied the Classical languages, you may know that ancient orators used passive verbs quite effectively. However, English does not have a passive form of the verb and, instead, requires other auxiliary words to show passivity. Because of that, passive sentences do not have the same punch that they once did. Use them when you need, but many can be rewritten. Um, well, that is, most writers can find ways to rephrase passive sentences into active ones.