by Erin Wilcox
Writers and editors frequently confuse passive voice with other syntactic structures, including those in which the main verb to be takes a subject complement rather than a direct object. Because these structures operate outside of the hierarchical paradigm of the transitive-verb phrase, creating more lateral relationships between subject and predicate, grammatical authorities often ignore them or judge them as weak. Few discuss their many significant virtues.
“Use the active voice,” William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White declare in their authoritative handbook, The Elements of Style, in which they extol the active voice for being “more direct and vigorous” than the passive. The usual reasons given for avoiding passive voice are that it obscures agency, making it possible to remove the true doer from sight, and that it clutters text with excess verbiage, whereas great writing wastes no words.
“Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic,” the authors admonish, “by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as ‘there is’ or ‘could be heard.’”
Most editors understand the wisdom behind lean phrasing, and many would interrogate there is and could be heard, seeking stronger alternatives. Nevertheless, although Strunk and White include it as an example, there is does not constitute passive voice. …
So what exactly is passive voice, how do we recognize it, and why do grammarians like Strunk and White confuse it with other structures?