The Morality of Passive Voice

Duncan Koerber
A free video tutorial from Duncan Koerber
University Professor
4.4 instructor rating • 9 courses • 12,066 students

Lecture description

Passive voice word order isn't just wordy, it can raise moral complications. 

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7 Lessons on Writing for Becoming a Standout Writer

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02:35:30 of on-demand video • Updated October 2020

  • Write clear, precise, and direct prose
  • Find alternative ways of constructing sentences
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  • Avoid clichéd words and phrases
  • Develop greater command of the English language
English Instructor: So far I've given you the grammar that's kind of under the surface of sentences and I've given you an example of a very straightforward style of word order which is active voice, and then also a problematic kind, because of wordiness, and some unusual constructions, and that is passive voice or passive word order. But these are kind of technical points. What about greater issues of passive voice, and one I wanna talk about is the idea of the morality of passive voice. So this is a greater issue that sometimes people use passive voice to avoid responsibility. Lemme give you an example. On the slide, this sentence says "the village was bombed and seven children were killed." So these are reprehensible actions, killing children, bombing a village, but if you go through this sentence and it's a passive voiced sentence, you'll realize what's missing. What is that? The doer of the actions of bombing and killing, we don't have the doer. This is passive voice, we've got the receivers of the actions, the village, the seven children. We've got the to be forms of the verbs, was and were, we've got the participle form of the verb bombed and killed, so all the elements are there, the required elements of passive voice, but we're missing the optional by whoever, by the doer of these actions. And this could be deliberate. So a lot of writers, political writers, will avoid doing this, business writers will avoid writing in active voice, so that they can just not have to take responsibility for this. Now what would you do with this kind of a sentence? Well you would say government planes bombed the village and killed seven children, that's the active voice version because the doer of the action comes first. Now another one in this slide, you'll see an example of a business letter that tries to evade responsibility. This is a termination notice, and notice that the writer says "please note that your position in the company "has been eliminated." That's passive voice because we don't know who did the eliminating. They say no other position has been found. Well who was doing the finding, we don't know. And then also the severance package stuff will be sent to your home address by whom, I don't know. So really there's three sentences there missing the three doers of these major actions. This is pretty serious stuff. In business writing, people will write this way often to avoid having a target on their back for these actions. So if you know who did the firing, you can contact that person and lay into them about this firing. Or find out why, but if we write in the passive voice, we don't even have to do that, and that's a problem. In academia, you sometimes get passive voice because people wanna seem objective, so in science, they'll say something like this in a report. "A limited sample was taken and tentative conclusions "were drawn." So scientists want to think they are objective so they write in passive voice all the time. You see this in other kinds of academic writing across all kinds of fields, but really it's not human beings did those samples, took those samples, human beings drew the conclusions, and so they're trying to hide behind a kind of faux objectivity, a pseudo objectivity using passive voice. And that's a problem. A final good example comes in politics. So politicians will say "your taxes will be raised," but they'll never say in the active voice, "I will raise your taxes," for obvious reasons. Now they will speak in the active voice when it's something that they wanna get credit for such as "I will lower your taxes." They would never say something in passive voice like "your taxes will be lowered" because that's not giving them the credit. We should recognize this morality of passive voice and make sure that we're not using these wordy constructions to hide our responsibility for actions. We should come out and be honest and be direct and state that we are the doer of these actions. That respects the people on the receiving end on this kind of communication.