I see blogs on writing everywhere that say to avoid passive voice sentence construction (skip to the end for a quick primer on active vs. passive voice sentence construction). On average, that is good advice. However, occasions arise where the opposite is true. Here are some reasons to use passive voice.
One. You’re a damn crook.
If you’ve got something to hide, use passive voice because of its ambiguity.
“Mistakes were made,” instead of, “I bungled it.”
“Your power will be shut off,” instead of, “Our burly henchmen will come to your house and pull the plug.”
“Litigation is pending,” instead of, “Irate customers served us with a lawsuit.”
“Bodily fluids will be extracted.” I think I’m done with translating. You get the picture.
Two. The actor is obvious or unimportant.
Scientific journal articles often use passive voice a fair amount. For example, “A solution was prepared as described in the preceding section, stirred for 30 min using a magnetic stirrer, and then filtered,” is in the passive voice. The actions are important, not the actor. It is obvious to everyone that the researcher is the one researching. Not only is inserting an “I” into such a passage superfluous, putting “I” in comes across as pretentious. The redundant, “I prepared, I stirred, I filtered,” sounds like Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici.”
(Parenthetical lemma: Passive voice can sometimes rescue cases of oft-repeated pronouns.)
“The prices were higher this time.” Who made the prices rise? Don’t know, don’t care. Nobody really knows what the heck an “economy” is, anyway. It’s all fiction made up by bankers.
“I was shocked.” Whoever or whatever did the shocking is probably evident in context. The use of active voice in this case would probably belabor the obvious.
“The tickets were sold out.” This statement is clear, and we do not need to mention the actor, which will likely be some cumbersome agency like “the Key Arena Box Office” whose inclusion in the sentence will double its size.
Three. Ambiguity is occasionally desired.
The weather sentence most heard in common usage, “It was raining,” recast into active voice is, “It rained,” which sounds oddly unspecific and mysterious. “It rained cats and dogs,” on the other hand, packs in a meaty metaphor, albeit overused. The actor, some clouds, can remain unspecific. “The heavens rained droplets of water” is in active voice, and it is specific as to actor and action, but it comes off as wordy, redundant, and generally weird. If convention dictates passive voice, let it be, according to the author’s purpose. “It was raining,” is nearly invisible due to its ordinariness. No reader will pause to wonder what is meant by “It.” If the weather is a topic to glossed over in order to get to the juicy murder scene, then “It was raining” is perfect. If, on the other hand, the rain is important for the plot, then it needs to be dwelled upon, probably in active voice. “Sudden fat droplets of water made bloated spider shapes on the dusty windshield.”
As implied in the “crook” section above, dialog from certain characters will thrive in passive voice. Officious ones: “It has come to our attention that your record isn’t as clean as you implied, Ms. Nottacrook.” Slippery ones: “There happened to be a fifty dollar bill, just sitting there!” A coy bachelor being quizzed by his mates the day after a date: “There might have been a little sex.”
Sometimes, the noun doing the action is unknown. “I was robbed!” could be considered alongside “Somebody robbed me!” and might be judged cleaner. It certainly has fewer syllables.
Four. Passive voice is useful for statements that summarize.
With proper setup, a summary in passive voice dazzles. The removal of the actor focuses attention on the generality of the statement. The sudden universality kicks your teeth in.
Therefore, quite a lot of memorable quotes are in passive voice. Not a majority, but a lot more than Hemingway would recommend. Half of famous quotes are phrased as commandments. Commandments have an implied “you” lurking invisibly, such as
(You) “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”
Interestingly, the missing “you” gives the quote the feel of being in passive voice. The remainder of quotes are split.
In passive voice:
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”
“Where there is love there is life.”
“There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.”
“There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.”
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
In active voice:
“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
-George Bernard Shaw
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
-Franklin D. Roosevelt
“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”
The lack of action verbs tends to give a passive voice feel to these quotes, even when they are technically active voice. Fascinating.
At the end of a fiction or nonfiction exposition, the summary is likely to be stated in general terms. When it is time for the grand summary, the Einstein genius moment, it usually means ejecting all the interesting verbs and using the equation-balancing verb of equality, “is.” (And its brethren “are,” “was,” and “were.”) That puts one on the cusp of slipping into passive voice, and even if one ends up crafting an active voice sentence, it won’t be sensual or vivid or visceral. But it might be mind-blowing.
“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”
“Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”
Or, I might be spittin’ upwind.
“The greatest power in the universe is the power of people to fool themselves.”
Five. When you gotta be poetic.
A joke writer knows that the punchline comes at the end. Sometimes, you just want the best word to come last, and you don’t care how many rules you break getting it there. The villain cackled. “You will be electrocuted,” he said as he switched on a monitor showing a female form reaching for a large switch, “by your own daughter! Muah ha ha ha!”
If there is a good reason for passive construction, by all means let it be done. It is a writer’s job to consider the many alternatives and choose the best.
Appendix: Active Voice and Passive Voice Quick Guide
An active voice sentence, such as “Biff runs races,” is constructed as actor-action-object. Biff is the actor, “runs” is the action, and “races” is the object. The object seems the least important of the three parts in this example.
To wrangle that into passive voice, one promotes the object to the place where the actor is. To remain grammatical, one adds a helping verb. “Biff runs races” becomes, “Races were run (by Biff).” Now, “Races” and “run” are important, but Biff is so marginalized, he might not even be mentioned, poor fellow.
Active “Somebody assassinated Kennedy” becomes passive “Kennedy was assassinated.”
Active “I shot the sheriff” becomes passive “The sheriff was shot.”
There are plenty of variations because English has a lot of tenses. In the above examples, I used “was” as the helper verb, but, according the situation, any of the “to be” conjugations could apply. Some of them are: am, is, are, was, were, have been, had been, am being, might be, could be, will be, may be, might have been, is about to, is going to, is always, is never.
A case I scratch my head over is: “She was.” As near as I can figure, this simple sentence is neither active nor passive because it has no object, or possibly no actor. If any grammarians want to weigh in on the issue, please feel free. Giving benefit to the doubt, in the famous quotes section above, constructions of the form “East is West” I assumed were more active than passive.
Finally, here is Hemingway himself (in passive voice):
“But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”