The battle against passive voice has been waged—and lost

A stalwart in the fight for active verb forms throws in the towel after two decades.

I’ve been calling for the death of the passive voice ever since I picked up a blue pencil. (We used these quaint tools to edit copy back in the last century.) But after 20 years on the front lines, I’m ready to admit defeat.

A bit of background: As the term suggests, “passive voice” means that something was done to something else. The road was crossed by the chicken. Short people are discriminated against. I am being screwed.

I find this construction sneaky and whiny. Most people use it to slither out of something they feel guilty about, whether it’s missing a deadline (publication was delayed) or fathering a child out of wedlock (the baby was conceived).

Back in high school, when I was too lazy or nervous to commit to precise language, I used the passive voice liberally. “It is argued that Mark Twain was the most revolutionary writer of his day” keeps things nice and vague—it’s not even clear whether the writer agrees.

My lack of commitment continued through graduate school, where I was prone to statements such as, “It is perhaps difficult to distinguish between the woefully overlooked and the rightfully obscure.”

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