Confusion over avoiding the passive

Many grammarians and commentators on usage and writing have delivered themselves of truly fantastic statements about the passive construction. Almost without exception, they recommend that you should try to avoid it. Some denigrate and deplore it in more extreme terms, treating it as unnatural, evasive, or unmanly, or even evil. To a truly extraordinary extent, they tend to be utterly unable to recognize instances of it; on this topic, see my paper 'Fear and loathing of the English passive (Language and Communication 37, 60-74 [2014]; browsable version of the text here).

The passive is of course perfectly respectable, and there is no reason to try to avoid it. To say that it shouldn't be over-used, or it shouldn't be used where it is inappropriate, doesn't distinguish it from any other construction or expression. Of course you shouldn't overdo it — the whole point of the over+VERB construction is to express the idea that something can be done too much, and that's bad.

Note also that it would be quite peculiar for there to be a way of constructing clauses, well known to everyone, that was generally not appropriate for use. If everyone who understood how to use the language well could see that the passive was not fit to be used, its survival down the centuries would be inexplicable.

In truth, the passive is very often exactly the right way to frame a clause in a particular context. All competent authors use passives frequently. The people who recommend against it use it themselves, even while talking about how you should not use it. For example, in the act of explaining that you should "Use the active voice" because it is "more direct and vigorous than the passive", William Strunk and E. B. White assert that "Many a tame sentence . . . can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice" (see section 14 of their book The Elements of Style). Their sentence defies their warning; it contains an instance of the passive voice itself (can be made lively and emphatic). They then proceed to give four examples together with illustrations of how to improve them "by substituting a transitive in the active voice", but not a single one of them actually illustrates a passive clause contrasted with an active transitive.

For an excellent example of the sort of misdirected grammar advice given in writing courses as a result of confusion about what the passive voice is, take a look at this page (kindly provided by Craig Russell) from a student paper as corrected in red by a teaching assistant at a top private university on the East Coast of the USA:

In ten places an allegation of passive voice is marked with an angry "P.V." (and "Passive voice!" is added in the margin to clarify); and in an astonishing 70% of them, the teaching assistant's analysis was incorrect.

1. was obviously very interested copular verb (was) with adjective phrase complement TA was wrong
2. was quite brilliantly using progressive be (was) with transitive gerund-participle TA was wrong
3. was also reluctant copular verb (was) with adjective phrase complement TA was wrong
4. was relatively easy copular verb (was) with adjective phrase complement TA was wrong
5. were opposing progressive be (were) with transitive gerund-participle TA was wrong
6. was corrupt copular verb (was) with adjective phrase complement TA was wrong
7. were more and more motivated copular verb (were) with passive clause complement 
8. were motivated copular verb (were) with passive clause complement 
9. were more likely to attract copular verb (were) with adjective phrase complement TA was wrong
10. was mentioned copular verb (was) with passive clause complement 

And amusingly, the phrase Innocent saw his people taken from him is marked "awkward" (though it isn't), but is not identified as a passive — yet it is a passive. The TA failed to spot it because the passive clause in question (taken from him by the Waldensian heresy and the Albigensian, or Cathar, heresy) is not the complement of the copula. It is very common, in fact, to find writing instructors thinking that wherever they see the copula (am, are, be, been, being, is, was, or were) they are seeing a passive, and that there are no other indicators of the passive.

List of Language Log posts on the passive

Passives have provided rich material for posts on Language Log by a number of writers. Some are on political topics, some literary, some syntactic. Several of them point out instances of the surprisingly common error of talking about the passive as a "tense" (it is nothing of the sort, under standard and traditional definitions of tense). Jan Freeman has a terse précis of important points drawn from Language Log in her excellent article "Active Resistance" (Boston Sunday Globe, March 22, 2009). Below is a list of posts from Language Log that discuss interesting (and often amusing) points about the passive construction, in chronological order, oldest first (the ones further down the list often have links back to earlier ones).

Passive voice and bias in Reuter headlines about Israelis and Palestinians (Geoff Pullum; December 17, 2003)

The passivator (Mark Liberman; April 6, 2004)

Two out of three on passives (Geoff Pullum; May 8, 2004)

Hey folks, 'passive voice' != 'vague about agency' (Mark Liberman; May 31, 2004)

Tossing technical terms around (Mark Liberman; August 5, 2005)

Voice confused with tense at the Economist (Geoff Pullum; March 13, 2006)

Diagnosing soup label syntax (Mark Liberman; June 29, 2006)

Passive aggression (Geoff Pullum; July 18, 2006)

How long have we been avoiding the passive, and why? (Arnold Zwicky; July 22, 2006)

The ancient roots of passive avoidance (Mark Liberman, July 23, 2006)

When men were men, and verbs were passive (Mark Liberman, August 4, 2006)

The direct and vigorous hyptic voice (Mark Liberman, August 5, 2006)

Avoiding passive for dummies (Arnold Zwicky, September 25, 2006)

School shootings and passive constructions (Geoff Pullum; October 10, 2006)

The passive in law (Arnold Zwicky, October 16, 2006)

If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all (Arnold Zwicky; October 31, 2006)

How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing (Mark Liberman; November 1, 2006)

Two ways to look at the passive (Arnold Zwicky; December 28, 2006)

Evil passive voice (Arnold Zwicky; May 1, 2007)

Let's put it in the passive tense (Geoff Pullum; May 25, 2007)

More passive tense (Arnold Zwicky; May 25, 2007)

A bulletin from the Language Log early warning center (Mark Liberman; August 1, 2007)

Some egg preceded every chicken (Geoff Pullum; March 6, 2008)

Dumb mag buys grammar goof spin spot fraud (Geoff Pullum; September 9, 2008)

There will be passives (Ben Zimmer; November 7, 2008)

Blurt and babble (Geoff Pullum; November 18, 2008)

The phenomenology of error (Mark Liberman; January 11, 2009)

"Passive Voice" — 1397-2009 — R.I.P. (Mark Liberman; March 12, 2009)

The aggrieved passive voice (Mark Liberman; March 16, 2009)

Passive voice: two out of three isn't good enough (Mark Liberman; March 16, 2009)

Nervous cluelessness (Geoff Pullum; April 22nd, 2009)

For the "passive voice" files (Arnold Zwicky; June 1, 2009)

Drinking the Strunkian Kool-Aid: victims of page 18 (Geoff Pullum; June 6, 2009)

Trying to avoid the passive? (Geoff Pullum; June 10, 2009)

Annals of passivity (Mark Liberman; June 23, 2009)

Puzzling passive (Arnold Zwicky; June 1, 2009)

Krauthammer: another writer who has no idea what the passive is (Geoff Pullum; June 12, 2009)

Annals of passivity (Mark Liberman; June 23, 2009)

"Passive construction" means... nothing at all? (Mark Liberman; June 25, 2009)

Weapons of denial (Mark Liberman; August 1, 2009)

Justice Kennedy interprets the passive (Geoff Pullum; November 4, 2009)

Suicided: the adversative passive as a form of active resistance (Victor Mair; 24 March 2010)

Worthless grammar edicts from Harvard (Geoff Pullum; 29 April 2010)

Rhetorical testosterone and analytical hallucinations (Mark Liberman; 1 July 2010)

Mark Steyn uses the passive to avoid passivity (Mark Liberman; 2 July 2010)

More on the stupidity of Kathleen Parker (Geoff Pullum; 4 July 2010)

"Unable to understand some basic sentences"? (Mark Liberman; 9 July 2010)

More on basic sentence interpretation (Mark Liberman; 12 July 2010)

More passive complaints --- misidentifying 5 passives out of 5 (Geoff Pullum; 21 July 2010)

Resume depassivization --- this time, zero for 4 (Geoff Pullum; 23 July 2010)

Mass insanity over passive UFOs continues (Geoff Pullum; 5 August 2009)

CSI psycholinguistics (Geoff Pullum; 6 August 2010)

The finance world tackles the passive: 0 for 2 (Geoff Pullum; 12 August 2010)

A peeve for the ages (Mark Liberman; 13 January 2011)

The passive in English (Geoff Pullum; 24 January 2011)

The BBC enlightens us on passives (Geoff Pullum; 22 February 2011)

The disembodied implied passive (Geoff Pullum; 2 May 2011)

The College Board endorses the passive voice (Mark Liberman; 16 May 2011)

Boneheaded usage advice about the hand of God (Geoff Pullum; 5 July 2011)

You don't need no stinkin' passive (Geoff Pullum; 18 July 2011)

Annals of "needs washed" (Ben Zimmer; 9 September 2011)

A sad case (Mark Liberman; 15 September 2011)

Drones and passivity (Geoff Pullum; 8 November 2011)

Penalties for passive misidentification are too weak (Geoff Pullum; 27 December 2011)

Passive-aggressive maybe, but not passive (Geoff Pullum; 24 February 2012)

Journalism 101: a passive fact-check (Geoff Pullum; 16 March 2012)

Rewriting Wikipedia in the passive? (Geoff Pullum; 30 March 2012)

Passive voice wrongly accused yet again (Geoff Pullum; 13 April 2012)

Kudos to Shaun and #passivevoiceday (Geoff Pullum; 25 April 2012)

One more misidentified passive (can you bear it?) (Geoff Pullum; 6 September 2012)

Gove counter-Gove (Mark Liberman; 1 July 2013)

Passive blindness in the NYRB (Mark Liberman; 30 December 2013)