Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sentence problems 3--passive voice

Do you know what the passive voice is? Many lawyers do not. Many believe it is any verb that is not "strong," or any form of the verb "be," or any past-tense verb. It is none of those, though all might be labeled passive in a general sense.

The passive voice is a form of the verb "be" (be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been) and a past participle (usually a past-tense verb). If the verb works with "have," as in "have _____," then it is a past participle.

In the passive voice, the grammatical subject is not doing the action; the subject is being acted upon. So it is possible to leave the actor out of the sentence entirely. Thus, the passive voice presents two problems:

First, the normal reader expectation of [actor--action--thing acted upon], which fits the expected English order of subject, verb, object, is subverted. Instead, it becomes [thing acted upon--action--actor] or, because you can leave out the actor: [thing acted upon--action]. In other words, sentences can be direct and active, like this one:
  • Active: I sent the letter.
But with passive voice, they get out of typical, expected order, and end up like this:
  • Passive: The letter was sent [by me].
Second, the passive voice emphasizes the thing acted upon and obscures the actor. Of course, you may want to obscure the actor, and you may want to emphasize the thing acted upon. For example, in your sentence you may want to emphasize that the letter is being sent and de-emphasize who sent it. That’s fine, as long as you do it intentionally and sparingly. But for most texts, better writers don’t want to emphasize the thing that something was done to; they want to emphasize who did it. So better writers use the passive voice rarely. For example, what are you emphasizing here?
  • The motion was filed, a hearing was held, and a ruling was issued.
Are you emphasizing these three items: the motion, hearing, and ruling? Or are you trying to avoid showing who did these things? This version changes the focus:
  • The district attorney filed the motion, both lawyers attended a hearing, and the judge issued a ruling.
Here’s another example:
  • The test might have been easier for students if it had been designed to measure their memories.
Can you identify the passive-voice construction? Remember, the passive voice requires a "be" verb and a past participle. "Been easier" is not passive voice: "easier" is not a past participle. The passive voice construction is "been designed."

And by the way, this is probably a better sentence:
  • The test might have been easier for students if the professor had designed it to measure their memories.

--Excerpted from Better Legal Writing

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