Who Uses Passive Voice More: Men or Women?

Writers and editors often depict using the passive voice in demeaning terms, claiming that it is less clear and direct than the active. The passive voice sounds, they would claim, as if the writer is not sure of the actions they are describing.

This leads me to think, that if someone was to overuse the passive in their writing, maybe it could reveal their own unsure, timid way of looking at things.

I got to guessing. Maybe there would be a difference between men and women in their use of the passive voice. Since women have been historically excluded, or at least did not participate as much as men in publishing in the English language, I expected it to show in their overuse of the passive voice. This, I thought would also reveal a point of view that is more uncertain and hesitant than the direct and decisive writings of men.

I ran a little experiment, checking 20 samples of female writings and 20 samples of male writings from internet posts, and put them through online ‘passive-voice checkers’ to see who has the most passive phrases in their writing, men or women.

The results were not at all as I had predicted.

  1. What is the Passive Voice?
  2. Passive Voice as a Character Trait
  3. The Source Material
  4. The Results
  5. The Reasons behind the Results
Photo taken from “Pro Writing Aid” https://prowritingaid.com/Passive-Voice

What is the Passive Voice

In his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language”. George Orwell prescribed six rules for clear writing. The fourth rule strictly concerns the passive voice and states: “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”

The passive voice, as opposed to the active voice, is a description of an action taking place from the point of view of the one upon whom the action was done.

So, if I am describing my sending a letter using the passive voice, that description is: “The letter was sent”.

How is this such a cardinal sin, according to Orwell?

The passive action obstructs our understanding of what is happening. It forces us to think harder if we wish to fully envision the thing that is happening.

Conversely, the active phrase “I sent a letter” conveys a clear picture in mind immediately, whereas “The letter was sent (by me)” is more obscured and burdens us with the effort of having to concentrate to see it clearly.

Passive voice as a character trait

So why would someone use the passive voice to describe actions in the first place? What is the passive voice’s appeal, and could its use say something about the person who is utilizing it?

While some languages are more prone to it (English, for instance, is much more accepting of passive phrasings than my native Hebrew, for example), I had an inkling that there is a difference between men and women when it came to using the passive voice.

My preconceived idea was that women would have used more passive structures in their writing than men. 

The reasoning behind this is that women, being historically subdued to an extent in English speaking societies, would therefore express themselves less openly and directly than men.

While the idea might be simplistic, it was powered by my thinking of the passive voice as an outlet for safely expressing actions as if they were impersonal and universal. Using the passive voice allows escaping the consequences of being the one doing an action.

In other words I had thought that by writing “the letter was sent”, instead of “I sent the letter”, the writer could potentially evade any criticism or retribution.

The source material

I first thought of using notable pieces of literature, basically prose writing, which are renowned today. For female writers I thought to check Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”, Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”, and many other classic works by English and American female authors. For the men I would use “Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”, Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, and, of course, George Orwell’s “1984”, although this might count as cheating.

The results?

I checked the opening passages of several popular works of literature and was immediately confronted with surprising results. The female authored works utilized significantly less instances of passive voice than the books written by men.

For instance, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” utilized only a single passive voice sentence within its first four paragraphs. Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001 A Space Odyssey” featured double that amount. Where the first paragraphs of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” featured but one instance of passive voice, the first paragraphs of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” revealed three passive voice phrases.

After performing this examination on more novels, and coming up with similar results, I began thinking that checking the passive voice using works of fiction cannot give an accurate picture of things.

I thought of the fact that literary creations are seldom the work of one person. They are rewritten, edited and glossed over by several people before reaching their final printed form. This might also account for the passive voice so utterly lacking in literary works written by women.

This sent me searching for a different source, which would prove to be a more immediate and natural form of expressive language.

The internet offers plenty of examples for unedited, immediate, and direct use of language. Internet comments, such as those found on forums and chatrooms, are an adequate source for checking my theory. Facebook comments are the best, since they are not anonymous and so can be chosen based on the writer’s gender. They have to be long enough, as many as 200 words, to be able to secure a large enough sample of expressions and to expect the appearance of any passive voice.

I found these types of long comments in many literary groups, where people write long reviews, recommendations and are inspired by the written word to express themselves.

Photo taken from this New York Times article

The results

While I only used a small sample for my little research, the results were consistent, and completely contrary to my own previews notions.

Men were using twice as many passive voice structures as women.

These results mirrored the ones that turned up from my examination of the literary texts, and it seemed that they reflected that there was indeed a pattern – just a pattern opposite the one I had anticipated.

In writing, women displayed a more active voice than men did. Obviously, a more comprehensive examination is in place, testing not only works of literary fiction or FB posts, but also non fiction works, articles and written outlets of expression.

I urge more strident (and less lazy) people than me to do a more comprehensive examination than I did here and see whether these results persevere.

The reasons for men using more passive voice than women?

The results surprised me immensely, since I was certain that my timid-women hypothesis would manifest itself clearly in the use of the passive voice.

In contrast, it appears that my preconception was wrong and invalidated by the test.

Men were the more passive writes, using twice as many passive-voice phrasings as women. I was, and still am, a bit stumped by the result, and so offer some possible explanations that could shed light on this phenomenon.

Clarity – It might be that men are not as concerned with being direct and clear as I think. That they take the liberty of not being direct, perhaps for the sake of sounding more intelligent and less simple and cut to the chase.

Modernity – One problem, or feature, of choosing Facebook comments as my source, is that they are timelier, and more trend-based than classic literature.

Facebook comments represent a state of English that is here and now. It might skew the findings and suggest a common trend among men and women in expressing themselves. Women today might be experiencing a liberation of activeness, which manifests itself in their writing. A possible way of checking this would be to compare today’s FB posts to previous decades’ personal writings, such as letters and postcards.

Women are more active – Since the findings of my experiment baffled me, I thought I needed to consult with a woman in shedding more light and finding possible explanations.

When I asked my wife about the results of my research, she replied in complete earnestness that the reason for men utilizing more passive structures is because “women do more than men.”

While this might sound condescending, I think most women will honestly agree with this notion, and that, if true, it can very well offer an explanation for why men use twice as much more passive voice than women. It might just be because women do twice as much actions as men.

It is not that women produce twice as much results as men, but they perform many more different actions throughout their daily routine than men. Men are more likely to focus on several major things during their day, basically revolving around going to work at their job.

Women are concerned and occupied with many different chores and tasks, like cleaning, cooking, taking care of children. My wife has also directed my attention to the fact that women perform more micro-tasks within activities which men do with one fell swoop. Just think of the activities involved in cleaning and tending to your face daily. There are many more actions which women perform for that one macro-task.

This is all speculation so far, but might mean that women, being more detail oriented than men, also see and describe the world with more action driven writing.

You said it. Photo taken from here.

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