What’s wrong with the passive voice?

Ways to reduce stuffiness in business and nonfiction writing.
Perhaps it’s time to check your writing – and ask for help if you need help coming up with non-stuffiness.

Stroppy Editor

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has joined the Campaign Against the Passive Voice. He follows in the footsteps of Strunk and White (whose section on the passive voice, while more nuanced than many people recognise, is calamitously misleading) and of George Orwell (who complained about the passive while using it extensively himself, even in the same sentence as his complaint).

The campaign isn’t wholly wrong, but it goes too far and it doesn’t properly understand the problem. The passive voice is often better than the active, and its overuse is usually a symptom of something else.

What’s the difference?

Roughly: in the active voice, the agent performing the action is the grammatical subject of the sentence and the recipient of the action is the grammatical object. The passive voice switches this around, making the recipient of the action the grammatical subject and the agent the object. Passive verbs are formed…

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