Grammarly

Passive voice misuse

But I wanted to use it that way!

Here’s something to keep in mind: there are plenty of writing tools out there, and most of them are complete garbage.

One that stands out from the rest by not falling into the garbage category is Grammarly. It really is a useful tool that helps speed the proofreading process along. It’s a lot like the built-in grammar checking tools for Microsoft Office and Google docs, but it’s in a cleaner, easier to use package. That being said, it does have one thing that just bothers me: the way it talks about passive voice.

If you’ve spent any time learning to write or reading advice about writing, you probably already know that there’s an incredible amount of hatred for passive voice out there. For anyone reading this who hasn’t seen that, give it a quick Google search and come back here.

If you need a definition, here you go: passive voice is when you switch the subject and the object of a sentence around the verb. For example, an active sentence looks like this:

Jimmy threw the ball.

Jimmy is the subject, threw is the verb, and the ball is the object. In English, the subject and the object can be switched, giving you a sentence like this:

The ball was thrown (by Jimmy).

That’s what passive voice looks like. The parentheses around by Jimmy are there because the sentence is still grammatical without that part.

Passive voice is a little more complex than that, but that’s a decent enough definition for now. So passive voice is grammatical, it’s possible to do in English, and there are a few reasons you might want to use it. If the subject isn’t known, for example, you might get a sentence like this:

The bank was robbed last night and the thieves are still at large.

I doubt even the most curmudgeonly grammarian would bat an eye at that one. Another example might be if you’re writing something like a scientific paper that focuses on the process rather than the subjects:

The test was conducted on 120 participants.

You actually have several occasions where passive voice makes more sense in writing than active voice. From what I can tell, the hatred for passive voice is more of a writerly meme than anything else. Some of the hate is because it can be used to hide responsibility. You might think of a politician’s “mistakes were made” instead of “we made mistakes,” but if you really think about it, that use of passive voice isn’t all that common.

But I started this post with Grammarly, and I should probably tell you why. Whenever you use passive voice (whenever passive voice is used?), Grammarly marks it as “passive voice misuse” regardless of context and intent. Here’s the thing: as I just showed, there are a few times where passive voice isn’t misused, and where it actually makes more sense to use it.

What really gets to me is that all this does is perpetuate a writing myth that probably should have died a while ago. Sure passive voice can be misused, but not every case of passive voice is a misuse. Ironically enough, Grammarly’s own blog talks about the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong, Grammarly is a wonderful writing tool and probably the only one I would recommend, but can we stop pretending passive voice is bad?

-PWC