Friday, October 17, 2008

a lesson on the passive voice

A law student's blog complains of feedback concerning an alleged instance of passive voice in the student's writing. The student wrote, "This memo addresses the issue of whether [the client's] claim meets the standard of willful detention," to which the legal writing teacher commented, "Passive."

Not sure why the teacher had criticized the sentence, the student asked for clarification. The teacher's response was, "I marked that sentence b/c you used passive voice. To use active voice, you would say something like 'this memo WILL address' rather than putting it in terms of 'addresses.'"


I don't blame the student for being angry. First, the passive voice--which the student's sentence did not use--is not a grammatical mistake. It may not be the best stylistic choice, as it usually creates a wordier sentence whose subject is not identified, but it's not wrong.

Second, and more importantly, if this legal writing professor does prefer for students to write in the active voice instead of the passive voice, it would be good for him or her to learn how to recognize a passive construction.

Look for a form of the verb "to be" (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) + a past participle (that form of a verb that--for regular verbs--ends in -ed; irregular past participles are verbs such as written, gone, spoken, thought).

Many good web sites provide resources: handouts (another here), lessons, and exercises. Just Google the phrase "passive voice" to find them. 

This lesson on the passive voice is now concluded.


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Preach it!

I was once in charge of publications at an HK law firm, and we had one partner who would send me marked-up copies of his department's drafts for our editing. Passive voice was his number one peeve, except that he couldn't recognize passive construction. I never had the heart (or balls) to tell him. :/

Posted by: Therese | Oct 17, 2008 9:10:51 PM

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