Passive Voice and the Zombie Rule

For lawyers, writers, and researchers, passive voice can be the right choice.  Or not.

Edits of my work do come back with notations that I've used the passive voice here and there.  

I am not ashamed.  

Sometimes, it's okay.  That's right, folks.  Sometimes, passive voice gets to stay.  

Finding The Passive Voice

Before deciding when and if passive voice is acceptable, you need to find it.  There's a fun grammar hack for ferreting out passive voice in your writing.  

It's called the "zombie rule."

I'm not sure who invented this -- maybe rjohnson, USMC professor --- but it's fun and it's fast.  All you do is stick the phrase "by zombies" after the verb.  If it works, then it's passive voice.

The Zombie Rule: Examples

If the sentence makes sense with zombies, then YIKES you've got passive voice.  Examples:
  • Those dishes have already been washed [by zombies].  (Yep.)
  • The court ruled the statute was [by zombies] unconstitutional.  (Nope.)
  • The rumor didn't spread by itself - it was leaked [by zombies] in social media. (Yep.)
  • SCOTUS released [by zombies] its opinion today.  (Nope.)
For more on the Zombie Rule, check out Snarky Grammar Guide and Grammarly.

Passive Voice Has Its Place

There are times to use passive voice.  I'm not going to discuss them here.  Suffice to say, it's acceptable if it's adding value to your writing.  You know this.  

The University of Wisconsin finds passive voice works when you are:
  • creating an authoritative tone; or
  • emphasizing the action rather than the actor.
Purdue allows passive voice when it is "rhetorically effective." 

The American Bar Association has an article discussing passive voice in legal writing.

(Go to the above sites to read more detail and get more examples.)