BlogGrammar RulesWhy Passive Voice is Dangerous

Why Passive Voice is Dangerous

Kathy Edens
Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist
Published Feb 13, 2019

Passive Voice

Passive voice can be dangerous, especially when it comes to how society views responsibility within a crime. It re-frames the question away from who perpetrated a heinous act and puts the public’s focus solely on the victim. How many times have you read:

  • An unarmed black man was shot while running away from the police.
  • A young woman was abducted shortly after midnight and gang-raped by five men.
  • The victim was murdered in her home by her estranged husband.
Contents:
  1. Passive voice shifts blame
  2. Beware politicians who shift blame
  3. What does this all mean?

Passive voice shifts blame

When you read those examples above, who are you thinking about? Your focus is on the victim and their actions in each scenario. Put another way: when you read each sentence, who’s to blame?

Well, obviously the unarmed black man was running, so he’s to blame. And the young woman was out walking around after midnight? What did she expect?

Do you see how dangerous passive voice is? It sets victims up to catch the blame instead of placing it squarely on the perpetrators’ shoulders. Let’s look at each of the above examples rewritten in active voice.

  • Police shot an unarmed black man as he ran away.
  • Five men abducted and gang-raped a young woman shortly after midnight.
  • Estranged husband murders wife in her home.

Active voice places the focus on those who deserve blame in the above rewrites. When you read these examples, you automatically want to know: Why did police shoot an unarmed black man? They must’ve shot him in the back if he was running from them. What good reason could they have to do that?

Too often women are blamed for being attacked because they were out late or in the wrong part of town. Often this kind of crime is reported in the passive voice without even mentioning the attackers: “A woman was attacked and gang-raped shortly after midnight.” But that’s wrong. Five men attacked a woman. Reporters and media need to use the active voice and put the actions on the subjects (the men) of the action, not the object (the woman). The men who attacked her are 100% to blame for the attack.

And that husband is a murderer. Hopefully, he gets life in prison without parole.

Beware politicians who shift blame

Politicians are the worst at using passive voice to shift blame. Let’s look at some top US politicians and examples of passive voice.

Donald Trump’s rally cry during the 2016 presidential election was "The system is rigged." How many tweets did the public read with those words? It made voters think Trump was being treated poorly just like they were during the election process. He portrayed himself as a victim despite his obvious wealth and privilege.

And Hillary Clinton tweeted in 2016, "Another unarmed Black man was shot in a police incident. This should be intolerable." This one doesn’t even have someone to blame because "a police incident" leads one to believe no individual officers pulled the trigger; it’s just something that happened, an incident.

Perhaps the moral of those two examples is politicians shouldn’t tweet. But that’s another article. Instead let’s talk about George W. Bush’s "mistakes were made" when the US armed forces tortured detainees at an Iraqi prison. And don’t forget Bill Clinton’s "mistakes were made" in response to a fundraising scandal in which he was embroiled.

We could write a book about the "mistakes were made" blame shifter. Previous presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter and former British Prime Minister David Cameron all used this passive voice entreaty to shift blame away from themselves for their mistakes.

The problem in politics is the lack of accountability. Passive voice in politics allows politicians to act as if these mistakes were things that happened outside of their control. But that’s not true. Taking the Iraqi prison example, there was a whole hierarchy in place and a problem in the system that resulted in those detainees being tortured. We need to know who made the mistakes, what consequences are they facing, and how to ensure that this never happens again.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to hear from these elected officials we’re expected to trust and respect: "I made a mistake. Here’s what happened. And here are the changes that we are enforcing to prevent it in the future." We hold our children to higher standards than we hold our politicians.

Wouldn’t it be nice if all politicians had to run their speeches through ProWritingAid before they gave them?

What does this all mean?

Passive voice is dangerous. It’s harmful to victims who get blamed for the crimes committed against them and it happens in disproportionate amounts to women and minorities when crimes are committed. Trust me, now that you are looking for it, you will be amazed how often passive voice is used in a way that puts blame on the wrong shoulders.

We need to take a stand against passive voice once and for all. Let’s encourage all writers out there, not just fiction writers, to use active voice in every piece of writing. Let’s shine the spotlight where it should be.

Take politicians to task when they use passive voice. The next time a politician tries to use the "mistakes were made" utterance, call them on it. Ask, "Specifically who made mistakes?" Let’s see them worm their way out of a room full of reporters and writers asking for clarification on whom to blame.

Here’s to active voice all the way.

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Kathy Edens
Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist

Kathy Edens is a blogger, a ghost writer, and content master who loves writing about anything and everything. Check out her books: The Novel-Writing Training Plan: 17 Steps to Get Your Ideas in Shape for the Marathon of Writing and Creating Legends: How to Craft Characters Readers Adore... or Despise.

Really? I think that, perhaps, the writer is giving us a glimpse of their own bias (or two). At no time, ever, would I read those passive statements and blame the victims. However, were I so inclined, I could just as easily do so while reading the active voice version. By the way, how does the passive voice place blame on the wife murdered by the estranged husband? I mean, I can almost see the poorly formulated logic for the first two but the third example is conveniently omitted. "Dangerous" seems quite a stretch as far as arguments go. Can’t we just sell the virtues of the elegance of active voice versus the clumsiness of the passive voice? The politician argument is also interesting as it’s implied politicians — for the sake of better speaking or writing style — should do a better job of incriminating themselves. That’s something few humans are willing to do and it’s beyond reason to assume politicians would be any more inclined toward the practice.
By ejdalise on 14 February 2019, 11:28 PM
Thank you for writing this!
By Lori Hobkirk on 15 February 2019, 02:44 AM
But what about passive voice in description? Someone objected to my "the hills that rose before them were covered by a new variety of pine." I don't think saying that "a new variety of pine covered the hills that rose before them" is as lyrical as the first version, besides the fact that one would notice hills rising before them before becoming aware of the the type of trees on it. I agree with noting when news media and others shift responsibility by use of passive, but I don't understand writing coaches and critics who seem to denounce the use of passive as poor writing.
By mcarvin1 on 15 February 2019, 06:22 AM
Hi there, we just recommend not using it too much. If it really improves your writing, go for it!
By kylemassa on 18 February 2019, 04:00 PM
Interesting article, but I would not take such a strong stance against the passive voice which, in the words of Steven Pinker, “could not have survived in the English language for 1,500 years if it did not serve some purpose.”[1]. The focus of public vigilance should be directed at public discourse and not at a linguistic entity. Politicians can use the active voice to transfer responsibility to another individual or group, and this can also be damaging to public life. In my view, the aversion to the use of passive voice demonstrated here can be seen in the ProWritingAid tools, which is detrimental to the quality of the product. [1] https://youtu.be/OV5J6BfToSw?t=1379 PS: Merriam Webster and Cambridge dictionaries “allow us” to write _reframe_ without an hyphen.
By andre.p.lima on 15 February 2019, 01:21 PM
Not sure if this was about writing or politicians, but either way I think you're dead wrong about focusing on "whom to blame." We already see plenty of that in politics. The left blames the right and vice-versa, ad nauseam. In the meantime, nothing changes. In a way, focusing on whom to blame is comparable to using passive voice - it focuses our attention on the wrong thing. We should be focused on fixing what's wrong rather than assigning blame. The question we should ask is not "who made mistakes", but rather "what are you going to do about it?".
By rickdyer.1 on 15 February 2019, 01:33 PM
Although I respect the time and effort of this blog, I have always disdained the current "wisdom" of never using passive voice. The examples in this blog, although legitimate, are simply examples of poor writing, not the heinous acts that could occur if we dare to use passive voice. There is a reason passive voice exists, it is up to the writer to determine its application and effectiveness. I mercilessly slaughtered several children this morning when I used passive voice. Sorry.
By hcff76 on 15 February 2019, 03:44 PM
I share your low opinion of blame shifting, especially when it's done by our elected leaders. In my opinion, it's malfeasance and grounds for loss of respect and perhaps for impeachment. But the presence of passive voice is not in itself the culprit. In my writing passive voice is a suspicious character who must account for his presence at the scene. But the passive voice does not always weaken writing. If I'm writing about the black man, I may want him to be the focus of the sentence. I believe it helps the reader follow the text. The black man was running, The police shot him. Who am I writing about? I've literally changed the subject. I've switched the subject from the black man to the police, but I want the reader's focus on the black man; it's his story. All that said, ProWritingAid's identification of passive voice in my writing is invaluable. Misuse of passive voice can weaken writing, and each use of it in my writing demands examination, but sometimes it's the best voice for that moment. Used properly, the passive voice has value. Let's not throw out the baby with the bath water.
By bobcohn on 15 February 2019, 04:45 PM
Not so sure we should eliminate passive voice from tech writing. Also, I have attempted to get a message to ProWriterAid but have not received a response. How do I contact you? ProWriterAid does not connect with my issue of Microsoft Word 2013 . On one edit added a line space above first line. Could not get it to reformat. Used a couple of tricks to resolve, but it was frustrating until I figured out a run around. How do I get a message to you folks. Great program. Not impressed with customer service, Thanks,
By lcarlson211 on 15 February 2019, 05:13 PM
Hi Larry, we are still checking into that issue. Hope to have it resolved soon!
By kylemassa on 18 February 2019, 05:03 PM
Actually, in your first example, no one said the police were the shooters. And it's possible they weren't. In the second example, its possible the abduction and gang-rape were two otherwise unrelated events that happened to the same woman. And that's a major reason I often find myself defending the passive voice: when the subject/actor is either irrelevant or unknown. Rephrasing such sentences into active voice often requires "guessing" about the who of it--which could lead to major legal headaches if the editor is wrong, or even right.
By wendygoerl on 15 February 2019, 08:43 PM
Should you have mentioned that often passive voice is useful to hide or generalize identity? If you don't want the reader to know whether humans or robots are the enemy you might say 'armed forces were dispatched immediately. That way it passes and we don't know whether a human or a computer dispatched a force of humans or robots. You wouldn't really want to say 'Someone dispatched an armed force.'
By rex.bromfield on 16 February 2019, 12:46 PM
Hi Rex, good call! That's another use of passive voice for sure. Thanks for commenting!
By kylemassa on 18 February 2019, 02:43 PM
I work in the criminal justice field and encouraged to use passive voice in reports, to the point of using "this writer" instead of "I". After reading this blog, I will attempt to cut down on it.
By timorlili on 16 February 2019, 05:26 PM
All right, I'll say it in active: You made mistakes in the writing of this document.First of all I can do the same with active voice: An unarmed black man, running from police, brought down a bullet from a police officer acting in the line of duty. Many times worse. Second peoples lives can be saved, when passive voice is used in war negotiations. Perhaps there are people whose lives were lengthened because Hillary Rodham Clinton used a more diplomatic verbiage, not to avoid casting blame but perhaps to avoid pushing some young, antisocial man to take action against the bloodstained blue uniforms. English speaker's obsession with active voice causes us to be more quick to blame. People are languishing in prison for no better reason than people's bias--granted punishment needs to be meted out, but there is a need for balance. James--that's me--got robbed again. Period, we don't know who did it. Books were strewn across the floor. Period, we didn't see them being strewn, let alone who did it. Ok, ok, the right way to say it is "An unidentified perpetrator robbed James again, because he isn't the best cashier when it comes to security. At least, he's not terribly observant or intimidating." And yeah. "An unidentified force arranged the books in what appeared to be a random pattern across the floor, for an equally unknown reason." Horsefeathers.
By jross22 on 19 February 2019, 08:48 PM
There actually is no need for all this agonized debate. Use of the passive voice can weaken the sense of agency, and sometimes this is done deliberately, especially by politicians and in the media. Accidental use of it can also occur, and we should be alert to this when writing our own stuff. That's it, really.
By ruthgrimsley452 on 23 February 2019, 04:10 AM