by Janelle Davis
So after spending two whole blog posts ragging on passive voice, it’s now time for our erstwhile nemesis to get up off the ropes and show us what, after all, passive sentence construction is good for. There are really only two scenarios in which we want to hand the fight over to passive voice, and they are both connected to the relative importance of the subject:
- when the subject is unimportant or irrelevant in comparison to the object
- when the object needs emphasis (including when the subject is unknown)
In the first instance, think of lab reports. Because scientific experiments need to be repeatable by people aside from the person writing the report, the identity of the original researcher gets played down. You do not, for instance, write, “I checked the growth in the petri dishes at twelve-hour intervals.” Instead, because the checking of the petri dishes is much more important than you as a person (for this paper; don’t worry, we still think you’re special!), you would write, “The growth in the petri dishes was checked at twelve-hour intervals.” If you’ve ever wondered why it can be difficult to slog through lab reports and scientific research papers, this is part of the reason: they lean heavily on passive voice, but they do have a strong reason to do so.
The same is true of situations in which the person or object receiving the action is more important, especially when the subject is unknown. Not sure when that might happen? Think of crime reports – when we don’t know who committed a crime, the crime gets described in passive voice: “The bank was robbed ten minutes before closing.” Here, the most important thing is the action – the robbing – and the object on which the action is perpetrated – the bank – rather than the person acting…possibly because we don’t know who the robber is. By contrast, if a journalist was excitedly writing up a tip from a cop friend about the robber’s identity, the sentence might look more like this: “Bob T. Thief held up First National Bank today at 4:53 in the afternoon.” Here, the emphasis is on the identity of the person doing the holding-up, possibly because this reporter is showing off a little bit.
At the end of the day, keep this question in mind: What is the most important part of this sentence? Usually that will still fall in the subject-verb-object style, but if you are conducting scientific experiments or writing about crimes with unidentified suspects, remember that passive voice is waiting in the wings with gloves on, ready to hop into the ring on your behalf.