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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.