A Limited Defense of Passive Voice

Let's look at a longer example now, assessing the merits of passive and active voice in a specific context.

He was recommended for the job by Elizabeth Schwartz, whom he had met at a conference the year before. Based on the favorable impression he had made on her at the conference, he had been identified as a strong prospect for employment at the highest levels of the corporation.

Note all the passive voice in this version of the passage:

1. In the first sentence, the primary subject is he (the man who was recommended), not Elizabeth Schwartz (who did the recommending).

2. In the second sentence, the primary subject is he (the man who had been identified), not the person who identified him as a strong prospect for employment.

Thus, both sentences de-emphasize the doer of the actions in favor of their object, the unnamed job candidate.

What would we gain or lose by rewriting the paragraph in active voice, with the doer in each sentence as the subject? Let's go one sentence at a time.

Elizabeth Schwartz, whom he had met at a conference the year before, recommended him for the job.

Compared to the original wording, this is a bit clunky: the subordinate clause (whom he had met at a conference the year before) ruins the flow of the sentence, and the main point, the recommendation, comes only in the last five words. While we could rewrite the sentence further to rectify these problems, that's beyond the scope of this article. For our purposes, we should concede that the passive-voice version was better.

How about the other sentence? Let's assume, though we cannot be sure, that Elizabeth Schwartz identified this fellow as a strong prospect. We could then write:

Based on the favorable impression he had made on her at the conference, she had identified him as a strong prospect for employment at the highest levels of the corporation.

What does active voice achieve here? Not much besides a change in emphasis — and that change might be a mistake.

Consider: Passive voice placed the emphasis on the candidate; in contrast, active voice places the emphasis on Elizabeth Schwartz. If the rest of the paper focuses on her, then the emphasis in the active-voice version is appropriate. But the context suggests that the candidate is the real protagonist. If so, the passive voice provided the proper emphasis.

This passage demonstrates how, on occasion, passive voice can serve your purposes better than active voice. First, it allows you to emphasize the object of an action when that object is more important. Second, it can spare you from writing awkward sentences that obscure your real point. Active voice can serve this purpose as well, but in our example, passive voice was the right choice.

This discussion by no means overrules any professorial injunctions concerning active or passive voice. I merely want to suggest that passive voice can be used to great effect. In the sentence I just wrote, for instance, the claim that the passive voice can be used emphasizes passive voice— my topic— rather than the unidentified user.

Passive Voice

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