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When should I use the passive voice? Are there situations in which it’s preferrable over the active voice?


In the world of writing advice, the refrain most often repeated to beginners is “first you need to learn the rules, then you can break them.” New writers are told again and again that the best novelists, poets, and journalists are the ones who break the rules better than anyone else.

Good and careful writers will blow all Rules of Writing into bits.
 Steering the Craft - Ursula K. Le Guin

Sure, no problem, you think, I can break the rules. How hard could it possibly be? Eventually, you’ll have a question about when to break a rule. When should I use the passive voice? Nothing comes to mind. So you pick up a book about writing by one of your favorite authors, and the book is chock full of great advice and interesting anecdotes. It even contains a section on the passive voice that you read carefully:

People often use the passive voice because it’s indirect, polite, unaggressive, and admirably suited to making thoughts seem as if nobody had personally thought them and deeds seem as if nobody had done them, so that nobody need take responsibility. Writers who want to take responsibility are wary of it.
[...]
If your style has been corrupted by long exposure to academese or scientific or “business English,” you may need to worry about the passive. Make sure it hasn’t seeded itself where it doesn’t belong. If it has, root it out as needed. Where it does belong, we ought to use it freely. It is one of the lovely versatilities of the verb.
 Steering the Craft - Ursula K. Le Guin

You turn the page. There are no examples of passive voice done right. Now, you’re even more motivated to find out how to break the rule but even less sure how to do it.

“Where does the passive voice belong?” you shout at the night sky before much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Okay, okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but it is frustrating, right?

But wait, there’s hope. You can ferret out an example in the author’s own work—a kind of usage and abusage scavenger hunt. I mean, reread that quote above. Doesn’t it sound like Le Guin knows what she’s talking about? She does, of course, and it doesn’t take long to find a paragon of passive voice construction in her collection of short stories “Four Ways to Forgiveness.” After all, Le Guin is a good and careful writer.

The Slave

In her novella “A Woman’s Liberation,” the protagonist is a woman named Rakam from the planet Werel who is kept as a slave. In the following passage, Le Guin uses the passive voice to describe a fateful night in the young woman’s life:

So on the night of the Young Owner’s birthday I was dressed all in red and led over, for the first time in my life, to the men’s side of the House.
[...]
I was brought to him in his great bedroom, all of stone carved like lace, with high, thin windows of violet glass.

Why does she use the passive here? I’m not in the habit of guessing at a writer’s intentions, but I can tell you why it works for me as a reader: the character lacks agency within the scene; she has no choice and no escape. She is not the doer but the doee. So, it makes perfect sense that Le Guin uses the passive voice. Rakam is still the subject of the sentence, but she is experiencing rather than performing the action of the verb.

The Captive

A similar use of the passive voice appears in the novella “Forgiveness Day.” Our protagonist is Solly, an envoy to a very conservative region of Werel. During a public celebration, an unknown group of radicals takes her captive:

They had taped her arms and legs, bagged her head. After a long time she was hauled out like a corpse and carried quickly, indoors, down stairs, set down on a bed or couch, not roughly though with the same desperate haste. She lay still. The men talked, still almost in whispers. It made no sense to her. Her head was still hearing that enormous noise, had it been real? had she been struck? She felt deaf, as if inside a wall of cotton. The cloth of the bag kept getting stuck on her mouth, sucked against her nostrils as she tried to breathe. It was plucked off; a man stooping over her turned her so he could untape her arms.

Just as with Rakam from “A Woman’s Liberation,” these actions are being done to Solly. But there is another, more practical reason that the passive works here. Look closely at the first two sentences. The first one is in the active voice. The second one is in the passive. Now imagine if Le Guin hadn’t used the passive: we would have to read the same non-descriptive subject noun over and over: “they, they, they.” It would be as irritating to read as it would be to write.

She uses the same pattern later on:

It wasn’t evening yet. When were the men going to come? They came early in the morning, after the endless night that was the same as the afternoon and the morning. The metal door was unlocked and thrown clanging open, and one of them came in with a tray while two of them stood with raised, aimed guns in the doorway. There was nowhere to put the tray but the floor, so he shoved it at Solly, said, “Sorry, Lady!” and backed out; the door clanged shut, the bolts banged home. She stood holding the tray. “Wait!” she said.

Rakam cannot see who unlocks the door, and the previous sentence already used “they,” so the passive voice is a natural choice.

That last sentence is important; she dares to speak to her captors. During the next few paragraphs, she is able to exert more control over her circumstances and press for more information, including that her captives call themselves the Patriots.

Now Solly has reclaimed some agency and given us a much more descriptive subject noun than “they,” so it makes sense that the next time that her captors come to her, we read about it in the active voice only:

Next morning about eight, according to Solly’s watch, the Patriots came into the room, four of them. Two stood on guard at the door with their guns ready; the other two stood uncomfortably in what floor space was left, looking down at their captives, both of whom sat cross-legged on the mattress.

These two stories offer an answer to the original question. It’s appropriate to use the passive voice when the protagonist lacks any control over a situation or when the controlling party is either unknown or unimportant. In these cases the mode of the verb accentuates the helplesness of the protagonist.

Of course, this is only of many good and correct uses of the passive voice. There are many more to be found if you know where to look! “Four Ways to Forgiveness” is one such place, but really you can’t go wrong with any Le Guin collection.