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14 May 2012

Don't be passive-aggressive

This opinion piece (by Constance Hale for the New York Times) has been doing the rounds.

Constance explains the passive voice clearly. She gives some examples of its abuse, such as this politicians' favourite — cleverly labelled the 'past exonerative'.
But Constance doesn't jump on the everything-active bandwagon. Sometimes sentences are passive for a reason. Maybe the 'agent' in the sentence isn't as important as the subject, or isn't known. If your car has been stolen, you may never find a specific person to be angry at.

So don’t overuse the passive voice, but don’t fear it. After all, it might be just what was ordered by the doctor.


  1. The passive voice is useful for front-loading sentences on the web: as research indicates that internet readers tend to skim web pages in an 'F' pattern (i.e. down the left side plus headings and subheadings across the page), it makes sense to put key words and phrases at the start of a sentence - even if they aren't the grammatical subject. That's where the passive comes in handy.

  2. That's an interesting use for the passive. But what about keeping sentences super-short for web readers? Aren't active-voice constructions generally shorter?