My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It.
The passive voice is frequently censured and widely condemned. Why is so much bad press received by the passive voice? Oops. Why does the passive voice receive so much bad press?
Lawyers overuse it, and its overuse makes for wordy, dull writing.
Quick review: The passive voice relies on a be verb (most commonly was, were, and been) plus a past-tense verb (technically past participle). All the following are in the passive voice (be verb and past-tense verb in italics):
- Mistakes were made.
- The contract was signed.
- The DNA has been collected.
By the way, a sentence like The statute is applicable might be undesirable (I’d prefer The statute applies) but it’s not in the passive voice. Yes, it has a be verb (is), but applicable isn’t a verb.
In the examples, we can see a key feature of the passive voice: The doer of the verb is not the subject of the sentence. In fact, the doer of the verb is missing from the sentence entirely. Mistakes were made. Who made them? We don’t know. We can put the doer of the verb into a passive-voice sentence, but we have to attach the doer with a prepositional phrase at the end:
- Mistakes were made by my staff.
- The contract was signed by Christina Duran.
- The DNA has been collected by Officer Kiser.
In the active voice, these sentences would be more vigorous and more concise:
- My staff made mistakes.
- Christina Duran signed the contract.
- Officer Kiser has collected the DNA.
Now we can explain the bad press. When we overuse the passive voice in legal writing, we produce dull prose two ways: We rob the writing of doers, of actors, of action. Stuff just happens—no one does it. Or we name the doers, but they’re tacked on at the end—something was done by someone. That’s wordy.
Hiding the doer and producing wordy prose can be bad things in legal writing, and the experts agree:
“The passive voice results in a wordier sentence … and often obscures the actor.”1
“The passive voice creates two problems. It uses more words than active voice, and it risks creating ambiguity.”2
“Generally, prefer the active voice over the passive voice for several reasons: It is more concise.… It uses a more vigorous verb.”3
But we don’t forbid all passive-voice constructions; the passive voice has legitimate uses, and here are three.
- The doer of the action is unknown or irrelevant. The police were notified. We don’t know or care who notified the police; we’re just saying they were notified.
- The focus is on the recipient of the action, and the doer of the action is unimportant. Treyco’s account was frozen, not Mercury’s account. This sentence focuses on which account was frozen, not on who did the freezing.
- The appearance of responsibility is being avoided. The emails have been deleted. This sentence hides the one who did the deleting. Avoiding the appearance of responsibility is occasionally useful in legal writing. But if you use the passive voice to avoid responsibility a lot, your readers will figure it out.
So the passive voice isn’t wrong; it has legitimate uses in legal writing. It is overused by lawyers (passive). Lawyers overuse it (active). So when you edit your writing, check for passive-voice constructions—maybe do a search for was and were. When you spot the passive voice, ask yourself, “Do I need the passive voice here?” If you don’t, the active voice will be more vigorous and more concise.
Wayne Schiess’s books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It.
1. Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 659 (3d ed. 2011).
2. Richard C. Wydick & Amy E. Sloan, Plain English for Lawyers 29 (6th ed. 2019).
3. Laurel Currie Oates & Anne Enquist, The Legal Writing Handbook 514-15 (5th ed. 2010).