It’s not passive voice you hate: it’s intransitive verbs

Was there ever a grammatical form more maligned than the poor passive voice? Read that sentence again — see what I did? Look, I get it. Strunk and White told you not to use it (while writing several verbs in the passive on the very same page); Word’s grammar checker assaulted you with wiggly green lines; even Orwell warned you against it (and I’m a fan of everything else he wrote).

The problem is that the passive voice is only one way of disguising agency, and I don’t think it’s always the most insidious. When I see rants on Twitter about the alleged use of passive voice in news articles, the examples that are highlighted are almost never actually in the passive voice.* That’s not to excuse disingenuous writing, but it’s important to name the culprit.

Consider:

  • Five people were killed.
  • Five people died.

The first sentence is in the passive voice (were killed). The second is not: the verb die has no passive form (we can’t say were died) because it’s intransitive. Of the two sentences, which one carries more sense of agency? Well, it’s the first one — we don’t know who killed the five people, but we do know that someone or something caused their deaths. In the second sentence, there is no agency at all: their deaths just happened (another intransitive verb).

In functional grammar, we say that an intransitive verb has only one participant, whereas a transitive verb has at least two (even if one is omitted in the passive voice). And that’s the point: nothing else can directly participate in an intransitive clause.

Of course neither sentence above carries the strongest form of agency (the attack killed five people, the bomb killed five people, the driver of the car killed five people). But blaming it on the passive voice misses the point.

Intransitive verbs can actually be quite pernicious. Ask yourself why these events occurred:

  • Violence erupted
  • Clashes broke out
  • A building collapsed
  • Tensions rose
  • Prices have increased

In all these sentences, the verb is intransitive, there’s only one participant, and it’s nonhuman. In other words, the writer is not acknowledging any human agency. Do prices rise by themselves, or do companies increase the price of their goods and services? Do tensions rise by themselves or because of actions taken by individuals, organizations, or authorities? Do clashes break out because that’s what clashes do or because someone did something to someone else? Maybe the writer doesn’t know the cause and can only report on the result, or maybe they don’t want to assign responsibility, or maybe they have an agenda or bias. We probably can’t tell from a single clause, but we can certainly look for patterns. Is one side of the conflict consistently named and other replaced by nonhuman participants? Which verbs are transitive and intransitive? Which events are seen as caused by someone, and which just happened?

It’s worth noting that, despite Orwell, the active voice can just as easily hide agency: Someone fired a gun does not tell us much more than A gun was fired, gunshots were heard, or guns went off. And sometimes the passive voice can actually impute responsibility much more strongly than an intransitive verb (which is technically always active) — X was murdered vs. X died. Plus of course, you can assign responsibility in a prepositional phrase, which may carry more weight than the active voice because it moves the agent to the end of the sentence, where English prefers to locate new and stressed information**:

  • The police shot the woman.
  • The woman was shot by police.

A little bit of grammatical awareness can draw attention to problematic intransitive constructions and help readers challenge them and writers choose to avoid them (or not).


* Footnote rant: The passive is a voice not a tense. You can’t write in the passive tense. Verbs in any tense plus nonfinite and infinitive verbs can be written (there it is again) in the passive voice.

** Footnote plug: You can read more than you ever wanted to know about intransitive verbs, passive voice, and old/new information in my textbook, Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers.

Further reading: McSweeney’s wonderful piece on “ambiguous grammar,” which is almost correct in identifying the passive but not intransitive verbs.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL, the Online Program Manager for the University of Delaware English Language Institution, and a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. He lives in Delaware in the United States.

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