In Defense of Passive Voice — A Grammar Geek Goes Rogue

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

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I like to think of myself as a grammar geek. Rules, in general, mostly give me comfort. They give me the illusion of order and reason in this chaotic, random world. They help me sleep at night. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve broken a few rules in my time, but generally, I’m the kind of girl who would stop at the stop light in the middle of the night on a deserted road, just because, well, the light is red. Blame it on my catholic school upbringing, or my fundamental respect for authority, or my naturally compliant temperament, but I tend to think, or want to think that rules are in place for a reason.

But every now and then there is a rule I just cannot make peace with.Clearly, as just evidenced, one is ‘never end a sentence with a preposition.’ I am ok with that one in my formal academic writing. But here, I just could not make myself change that to “ . . . a rule with which I just cannot make peace.” Ewwww! That’s just wrong on levels I cannot even explain.

Hands down, the biggest rule I love to hate is ‘do not use passive voice.’Happily this is not a hard and fast prohibition, though some grammar bullies will impose it as such.

It does pain me that some of the best style manuals highly discourage its use. But, to be fair, passive voice has its supporters, or at least tolerators, and many famous quotes use the convention. Case in point:

For of those to whom much is given, much is required. — JFK and Luke 12:48

Being a psychologist, I am always looking for the complexities and underlying meaning in everything. And passive voice insinuates undercurrent. To me, to be forced to change a sentence from passive to active voice, is to change its core meaning.

“Mistakes were made” is so fundamentally different from “I made a mistake.” Of course, each has its appropriate place. But never, ever are they a substitute for one another for me.

“Mistakes were made” is so deep and nebulous that it sucks me in. It’s dark and twisty. There’s room for a big complicated story with many sides and tangled webs in there. Kinda like life.

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In her book on rhetoric, Marquette University professor Krista Ratcliffe argues that “passive voice mystifies accountability by erasing who or what performs an action” (p. 94). Exactly! It’s that mystery that pulls the reader in further.

Passive voice has been criticized for being imprecise. My response — “Why yes! Yes it is!” That’s its beauty. That’s its glory. That’s what makes me want to know more.

My response to “Mistakes were made” is, “Oh, reeeeallllyyyy?” with a raised eyebrow. “Do tell.”

Whereas, “I made a mistake” just elicits “Oh well. Everybody does. Suck it up buttercup and get over it.”

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I am just over-analytical. It’s an occupational hazard.

But maybe, just maybe . . . rules will be broken.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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