The dreaded passive voice…

So.  I just got called out in class today for using the passive voice in a blog post.

I just looked back at the blog post.  I’m frequently guilty of indulging my desire to fall into the passive voice, so I wasn’t surprised when the professor said that I had done so.  However: the specific example in the post in question brings up an issue that I’ve often had when people say to avoid the passive voice: aren’t there some times when it is necessary? 

I looked at the sentence, and it’s pretty much what I wanted to say:  "In January of 1917, a pamphlet was published…" The thing had about 15 signators, if memory and my quickly-scrawled notes serve me right.  I can’t rightly say who wrote it– surely the entire committee did not.  In my experience with writing by committee, one or several people write something, and the rest sign off.  Or offer revisions.  But I doubt all 15 people sat in a room, passing around the pen.  Moreover, again, I’m working on memory and notes here, but I don’t recall a publisher being listed anywhere. 

How could I put this into the active voice?  I can’t say, "Someone wrote a pamphlet," or "Some dude published this broadside," can I?  That sounds worse than the passive voice, to my ear.  I guess I could say, "a pamphlet appeared," but that sounds like some sort of mystical process.

I know that "The passive voice should be avoided," (har, har…) but it seems as if sometimes it’s the right stylistic decision.  How do you not resort to it when you’re faced with holes in the historical record?  It seems that sometimes there are documents that are too important to be thrown out just to avoid an "incorrect" voice…  The English Language has a passive voice for a reason– it avoids direct agency, which can be significant, even important, to do at times.  Sometimes it’s best to agree that "mistakes were made."

Can’t it be acceptable in Historical writing to utilize this voice’s capacity to elide certain gaps in information?

8 thoughts on “The dreaded passive voice…

  1. tad

    Unfortunately, they were an unnamed group that only existed to create the pamphlet. And the publisher wasn’t listed, I don’t think.

    You know, in Japanese, a sentence doesn’t even require a subject. I should learn Japanese.

  2. tad

    Unfortunately, they were an unnamed group that only existed to create the pamphlet. And the publisher wasn’t listed, I don’t think.

    You know, in Japanese, a sentence doesn’t even require a subject. I should learn Japanese.

  3. Were the 15 who created the document part of a group? What was teh publisher’s name. Could phrase it:

    “The pamphet, published in 1917, discusses x, y, and z.”

    Passive voice isn’t inherently bad, but flagrant overuse of it can dilute writing. I think the example you give is ok, for the reasons you cite. But there are lots of other instances that writers can avoid passive voice.

  4. Were the 15 who created the document part of a group? What was teh publisher’s name. Could phrase it:

    “The pamphet, published in 1917, discusses x, y, and z.”

    Passive voice isn’t inherently bad, but flagrant overuse of it can dilute writing. I think the example you give is ok, for the reasons you cite. But there are lots of other instances that writers can avoid passive voice.

  5. Tad,
    Loved the idea about polling to see what people like best/least about the website. I hadn’t thought of a way to start the project yet, but I think that might be the ticket. I was looking for your project proposal but couldn’t find it.

    BTW…I don’t think there is a way to that particular sentence out of passive voice…good luck with that one.

  6. Tad,
    Loved the idea about polling to see what people like best/least about the website. I hadn’t thought of a way to start the project yet, but I think that might be the ticket. I was looking for your project proposal but couldn’t find it.

    BTW…I don’t think there is a way to that particular sentence out of passive voice…good luck with that one.

  7. Tad,
    Loved the idea about polling to see what people like best/least about the website. I hadn’t thought of a way to start the project yet, but I think that might be the ticket. I was looking for your project proposal but couldn’t find it.

    BTW…I don’t think there is a way to that particular sentence out of passive voice…good luck with that one.

  8. Tad,
    Loved the idea about polling to see what people like best/least about the website. I hadn’t thought of a way to start the project yet, but I think that might be the ticket. I was looking for your project proposal but couldn’t find it.

    BTW…I don’t think there is a way to that particular sentence out of passive voice…good luck with that one.

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