Passive avoidance

You may have been taught to avoid passive verb structures, to keep the reader closer to your writing. They have their place, however, and avoiding a passive mustn’t result in the meaning becoming distorted.

The problem is that an active verb needs a subject, which you may then have to introduce. It’s perhaps best illustrated with a couple of real-world examples:

  • “The wind tunnel conducts research into noise reduction techniques.”
    The author was evidently trying to avoid the passive (“research is conducted”) and perhaps reluctant to introduce a subject for the active verb, e.g. “we conduct research” or “companies conduct research”. However, they’ve now got a scientifically minded AI wind tunnel, which probably wasn’t what they meant.
  • “This way, patients who are short of breath can still administer the medicine to the small airways.”
    The passive verb form (“the medicine can still be administered”) would have been fine, really. But now the patients themselves are doing the administering, which definitely wasn’t the case in this text.

Scientific and formal writing styles are mostly pretty OK with passive verbs, in fact. The idea of avoiding them to get greater immediacy applies more to creative writing anyway, in my opinion.

Prevalence: moderate. Most kinds of document are susceptible to it, but it depends more on the author than the material.
Frequency: moderate. Not very common, but it is liable to occur several times in the same text.
Native: sort of. Some authors avoid passive verbs that would have been fine… but the result will still be both syntactically and semantically sensible.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

2 thoughts on “Passive avoidance

  1. I hate the way MIcrosoft Word tries “correcting” passive structures in English. This thing about “active voice” meaning “active language” is just silly, and it all depends on the text.

    Let us at least have the passive…. English doesn’t have anything like the slightly mind-boggling Germanic “Es klopft an die Tur” or the Romance impersonal verbs forms (“aqui se habla come bien”), and the “one is a grandmother” forms are clearly a no-no. But sometimes the subject just is either unknown or concealed.

    Like

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