A lot of you have asked me to explain passive voice and how to avoid it.
Now let's talk about some common scenarios where passive voice does help and why.
- In crime reports
- In fiction writing
- In scientific writing
Use Passive Voice When the Subject is Unknown
On the other hand, sometimes passive voice does have advantages. For example, if you truly don’t know who is taking the action, then you can’t name the person. This is especially common with crime reports. For example, a security guard might write "The store was robbed," because nobody knows who the robber was.
Use Passive Voice in Fiction to Emphasize Specific Details
Passive voice is also sometimes useful in fiction writing. For example, if you were writing a mystery novel and you wanted to highlight missing cookies because they are central to the story, passive voice is the best option. It would make more sense to write, "The cookies were stolen," instead of "Somebody stole the cookies."
The difference is subtle, but in the passive sentence “The cookies were stolen,” the focus is on the cookies. In “Somebody stole the cookies,” the focus would be on the unknown somebody.
Passive voice can be helpful if you want to create a sense of mystery in your sentence, which is also a reason that it's not usually a good choice when you're writing nonfiction and you want your writing to be clear.
Use Passive Voice in Scientific Writing to Create Objectivity
An exception is that scientists are often encouraged to write in passive voice to lend their writing a sense of objectivity--to take themselves and their actions and opinions out of the experimental results. I used to be a scientist and I always found that odd. It felt as if we were trying to hide that real people did the experiments.
Some scientific style guides do allow for a limited use of active voice (1). For example, it may be OK to write, "We sequenced the DNA," instead of "The DNA was sequenced," but it's still considered bad for scientists to insert themselves into conclusions. For example, it would be bad scientific form to write "We believe the mutation causes cancer." But you still don't need passive voice to achieve your goals. For example, the active sentence "We believe the mutation causes cancer," could be changed to "The data suggests that the mutation causes cancer." That's still active, but it eliminates the sense of subjectivity.
Next: Did Strunk & White Get Passive Voice Wrong?