“Language is a technology, invented to take information in your head and put it in other heads.”
It is with this most unromantic premise that I set off with my students to discover the Latin tongue. Worry not that such meager ceremony should christen my charges’ maiden voyage to those Lavinian shores. I do not thus qualify their first steps into Latinity to squash their sentiments of mystery and ancient prospect; I do so to liberate them. As rule-oriented as English education is (and Latin moreso), it serves a student well to remember that the point of language is communication—as regards Latin, communication with the past. The rules we learn that govern use of language, therefore, are those that make the best use of language, or rather, that best accomplish the aim of one’s speech. Far better it is that students see these pillars of their study not as strange Herculean mandates, but as foundations for masterful expression.
However, there exists in the English language a number of conventions whose utility for effective speech is difficult to qualify, chief among which is this: Never use the passive voice. To those unfamiliar with this proscription, I encourage you to ask around; it should not take long to find someone who strongly condemns the passive voice as an unforgivable grammatical error. Yet the Latin of antiquity makes frequent use of the passive voice, even in the hands of Rome’s most illustrious wordsmen. So, for that matter, does the English tradition. The belief, however, that the passive voice is something inherently worthy of censure has passed so completely into the understanding of modern English education that many treat it as an elemental rule rather than a stylistic admonition. I humbly propose to dispel this well-meaning misapprehension.
Let it be shown that the passive voice is not just allowable but preferable in some cases; in other cases, the active voice is absolutely preferable. In yet other cases both are allowable depending on your preferred emphasis. Our chief concern, therefore, is not to justify how much the passive may be used, but that it can be used at all. Firstly, let us demonstrate that nothing is objectively wrong with the passive voice in English; secondly, let us identify in what cases the passive voice is objectively right.
To our first question—”When others describe the passive as bad, is it objectively bad?”—I turn to Latin, a language that not only employs the passive voice with little stricture, but to which English frequently defers for grammatical guidance. We cannot write Latin passives off as an artifact of Italic primitivity; Romans were exacting grammarians whose energetic promotion of good Latin is the basis for the classical Latin we study today. The very “class” to which this “classical” style refers is the educated elite, whose language was cultivated for public oratory. Its excellence relied on its rhetorical appeal—sufficient clarity and command to sway the masses, with a refinement worthy of recording for posterity. To describe Latin as good, then, is to recognize how careful cultivation of style is borne by the spontaneity of public discourse; its performative quality lends paramount importance to sequence of ideas, rising and falling emphases, and suspension and resolution of themes. The natural features of the language suit it well for these purposes; a highly fluid word order, an emphatic metricality, and a complex variety of verbal agencies such as the passive voice all accomplish this goal of shaping one’s speech to maximal sequential effect.
How does this apply to English? English is suited to its own excellencies by its own features, most notably its enormously rich and adaptable vocabulary. What English does not have is Latin’s fluidity of word sequence and emphasis; in English, one cannot arrange words nearly so pliably without altering the sentence’s substantive content. In this respect, English lacks an essential tool that lends Latin its performative oratorical quality. Remember, though, that Latin has other means to this end, some of which English has in common; prominent among these is our sought-after passive voice. The chief effect of the passive is to reorder ideas, to replicate the semantic meaning of its active equivalent while changing both word order and emphasis. To forego the passive voice is to artificially limit a capability in English that signifies excellence in Latin.
Our second question—”When I defend the passive as good, is it objectively good?”—is proven easily enough. There exist numerous English constructions that can only be rendered in the active voice by surrendering what advocates of the active claim most characterize its excellence—desired strength and clarity of style. Grammatically speaking, a verb being active or passive changes its subject, but its agent—the actor, the performer, the doer—remains the same. However, the role or importance of the agent can vary so substantially that numerous demands upon it can render it useless or undesirable as a sentence’s subject.
If the agent is unknown, any active construction would merely mention that “someone” or “something” performed the action, and the introduction of an indefinite pronoun adds unneeded vagueness:
Passive: The sword was forged in the 1300s.
Active: SOMEONE forged the sword in the 1300s.
(Who? Why did you bring him up?)
If the agent is irrelevant, any active construction would include the agent even though the agent does not need mentioning to make one’s point:
Passive: Your house has been repainted.
Active: LABORERS repainted your house.
If the agent is obvious, any active construction would include the agent in a redundant fashion:
Passive: Shoplifters will be prosecuted.
Active: PROSECUTORS will prosecute shoplifters. (Naturally.)
If the agent’s inclusion would appear antagonistic or accusatory, any active construction would imply blame or condemnation in respect to the verb:
Passive: Your bill was not paid on time.
Active: YOU did not pay your bill on time.
(This is how you can tell if it’s a scam call or not; scammers use the active voice to intimidate you.)
If there are multiple agents acting on a single subject, any active construction would involve multiple conjoined clauses or very complex composition:
Passive: I was dumped, fired, robbed, and kidnapped.
Active: JENNIFER dumped me, my BOSS fired me, a BURGLAR robbed me, and my MOM kidnapped me.
(Didn’t see that coming, did you?)
Accepting the legitimacy of the passive voice in English need not concede equal utility to that of the active, much less a swing of the pendulum all the way to condemnation of the active. Each has its proper use, and I daresay that the original source of consternation against use of the passive was precisely its frequent overuse, which can produce an abstract, distant, or snobbish style. In any matter of style, however, the injunctions of our syntactic betters must be regarded as just that—matters of style, whose high fashions come and go but whose quotidian use obeys the demands of common sense.