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Passive Voice: Avoiding Responsibility Or Putting Focus Where It Belongs?

   By: Holly Jahangiri

Many writers regard passive voice as something invented by the Devil himself. Evil, evil, evil. And, when used by writers to avoid placing responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the rightful subject of the sentence, passive voice is a pretty heinous thing. For example:

The cigarette ads were designed to appeal to a younger, hipper crowd, aged twelve to seventeen.

Well, who thought up that brilliant idea, eh? No one wants to admit to it. And while the target demographics are pretty important, in themselves, wouldn't it be more interesting to know who's behind the nefarious ad campaign?

That might just lead to lawsuits. Those can be pretty interesting, too.

The defendant, J. R. Renfield, was fined six million dollars and ordered to produce a twelve-month series of public service announcements designed to educate young viewers about the dangers of smoking.

Maybe passive voice isn't so evil, after all. J. R. is the rightful subject here, not the judge or jury.

Passive voice is constructed by combining a transitive verb (one that takes an object) with an auxiliary verb (“to be”). For example:

Active: Joe threw the ball. Passive: The ball was thrown.

Well, we knew that – after all, the ball broke our plate glass window. What we want to know is, who's going to pay to fix the window?

Passive: The ball was thrown by Joe.

In this second example of passive construction, Joe gets responsibility for throwing the ball, but he is no longer the subject, or main focus, of the action. If the ball and the fact that it was thrown at all is more important than Joe, it may be more appropriate to use passive voice.

Consider the following:

The fire, which destroyed six city blocks and killed nine firefighters, was caused by faulty electrical wiring.

Nine firefighters were killed, and six city blocks destroyed, by fire caused by faulty electrical wiring.

Faulty electrical wiring caused the fire that killed nine firefighters and destroyed six city blocks.

Which is more interesting and important: the fire, the cause of the fire, or the death and destruction that resulted from the fire? Put the focus where it belongs; make the most important thing the subject of the sentence, even if it involves using the passive voice. Just be sure that you're not avoiding an issue or shielding the real actor from personal responsibility.

Holly Jahangiri is a professional writer who claims, tongue-in-cheek, to channel the spirits of Edgar Allan Poe, Erma Bombeck, and O'Henry. Holly is an author on Writing.Com http://www.Writing.Com/), and you can buy her books at Lulu http://www.lulu.com/hjahangiri).


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