Orwell was not always right: in defense of the passive voice
The Financial Times
7004

Passive sentences aren’t couch potatoes

but often they excuse lazy writing

I’m an advocate of active voice, not as an absolute rigid rule, but as a focus for editing.

With that sentence written, I suggest a better phrasing:

“I advocate active voice….”

Why? Because I prefer each sentence’s subject and verb to capsulize a sentence’s meaning. Grading student papers taught me this lesson. Eighty percent of student sentences reduce to the subject and verb, “it is.”[1] This core structure delivers no unique or useful information, and too often leads to complex sentences with dangling modifiers clinging to the sentence structure like leaves begging autumn not to condemn them to fall.

This doesn’t rule out passive verbs, or combining active with passive clauses. “Jeremy broke the speed limit when he learned his mother was rushed to the hospital.”

Consider Professor Pullum’s example of a perfectly fine passive sentence: “There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.” It is readable, it isn’t wrong, but it could just as easily be written: “Riots disrupted[2] several small towns in New England last night. Police and stone-throwing youths clashed….”

Not only is this equally clear to the reader, it reveals to the writer that another essential piece of information has been forgotten in the lead. “Police and stone-throwing youths clashed over curfews adopted in order to allow the towns to reduce police patrols and overtime pay.” (Or whatever the cause.)

Above all, writers want to be concise and clear to the average informed reader. Rather than obsessing over rules, we should adopt wise strategies, and active voice remains one of them. By considering them strategies, however, we leave room for variety and surprise.

[1] If I exaggerate, the number isn’t far from the mark. I kept track over three assignments in three classes one semester, and though I lost the figure after I retired, the results fell within that ballpark.

“It is” umbrellas variations such as “they were,” “they are,” “there is,” and, taking a cue from Professor Pullum, “there were.”

[2] rocked, spread through, disturbed