I Didn't Do It!
by Cherie Tucker
The passive voice, some form of to be used with the past participle of a verb, can be effective if used intentionally.
In the following sentence, the writer does not tell who did the action. The subject (the bill) is the object of the action, and the emphasis is on the action and the object acted upon.
The bill was not brought up for a vote.
In this sentence you see what wasn’t done to the bill, but you have no idea who did the “not bringing up” business. If, on the other hand, your purpose is to show who did the action, you’d write it like this:
The Speaker did not bring the bill up for a vote.
The determining factor should be your intention. If you wish to obscure the subject, use the passive voice, as in the first example. If you need to show who the subject is, use the second.
The purpose of using the passive voice is to put the focus on the object of the action. The active voice puts the focus on the doer of the action.
The bill was not passed.
The children were not bathed.
We did not pass the bill.
You didn’t bathe the children.
If the perpetrator is not important, or you want it hidden, then you use the passive voice. This kind of obfuscation is common in politics, but it’s not good practice unless it enhances your scene. Remember always that “passive” is the opposite of “active,” so don’t use the passive when you want your scene to move. But both forms can be effective in your writing as long as you use them intentionally.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference. She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com.