What Is The Passive Voice And When Should You Use It?

What writers should know about the passive voice

As writers, we want our work to be powerful. We want our words to elicit emotions and strong reactions. We want our prose to resonate.

If your goal is to ensure compelling writing, avoid using passive voice. In this article, we’ll examine what passive voice is and why it saps the power from your writing.

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What Is Passive Voice?

The passive voice refers to when the subject of the sentence is the recipient of a main verb. Typically, you can spot it by looking for verbs that end in -ed, n t or d.

Consider this sentence: Maddie walked the dog.

Maddie is the subject in this sentence because she’s the one affecting the object (walking). The dog is the object because it’s being acted upon (being walked). The sentence uses the active voice, because the subject is clearly taking action.

Now let’s consider this sentence in the passive voice.

The dog was walked by Maddie.

The object and subject of the sentence are switched, creating a passive sentence. The subject of the sentence is acted upon. “By” serves as an auxiliary verb that modifies walk.

In short: the passive voice occurs when the object is performing the action.

Why Is The Active Voice Better Than The Passive Voice?

In passive constructions like the one above, writing is less direct. Using passive voice obscures the sentence’s meaning and misdirects the action. This sentence structure weakens the message.

Consider the following sentence: The queen terrified the peasants.

In this sentence, the queen is terrifying the peasants. She has the power in the sentence. She’s the first one mentioned as well as the one performing the verb. The queen not only does the action, she retains agency in the sentence.

The peasants were terrified by the queen.

In passive construction, the peasants are the first item listed in the sentence. Instead of the queen retaining power, the reader thinks about the peasants: how they’re affected and what they’re doing.

Many writers overuse the passive voice when they’re in a hurry or they feel unsure about what they’re saying. William Strunk writing in the popular grammar book The Elements of Style said about passive sentences versus the active voice:

 The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action, but in writing of any kind. 

William Strunk, The Elements of Style

Why Should You Use the Passive Voice?

Unless you’re writing a formal document, don’t overuse the passive voice as it will bore readers and weaken your writing.

That’s not to say you should stuff every piece of english writing with active verbs and eliminate the passive voice and auxiliary verbs entirely. Contrary to the popular opinion of many writing instructors, writing in the passive doesn’t equate to an instant grammar error.

Deciding when to use a passive voice sentences or active sentences is sometimes a stylistic choice.

Consider these following gerundial examples:

  • My dog was stolen.
  • My house was broken into.
  • The queen was kidnapped.

In the above examples, we don’t know who the doer of the action is. So we use a passive verb at the end of the passive sentence to highlight was happened. You can typically identify the passive voice by looking for instances of the past participle. For example:

  • robbed
  • gotten
  • spent
  • finished

You can also identify passive voice sentences if you look for english prepositions like “by”. For example,

  • The meal was eaten by the man.

The passive form is popular in academic writing, as well. The passive voice is useful in formal writing when qualifying a statement or focusing on the person or thing affected.

Academics are often reluctant to use active verbs if they are writing about an ambiguous topic, lab reports or study. The doer of the verb matters less than the result. Consider the following examples of popular verb phrases:

  • … it was found that…
  • …. it was proved that…
  • …. it was cited that…

Journalists will sometimes use instances of the passive voice if they want avoid defaming someone or making a statement that’s untrue. They will also use the passive form if they don’t have all the facts about the subject of the sentence in question. For example,

  • The president’s car was stolen.
  • $100000 was embezzled from the business by an unknown person.

How to Fix Passive English Constructions

While passive construction can take the power out of your writing, it’s simple to fix these mistakes in your work.

Follow the steps below to eliminate the passive voice in your work.

Step 1: Locate The subject

The subject is the person or thing taking an action.

The dog was bitten by the cat.

Is the dog the subject? It may be the first noun in the sentence, but what was it doing? The dog wasn’t doing anything, so it can’t be the subject.

The cat, however, was doing something: biting. Therefore the cat is the subject in the sentence.

Step 2: Locate The object

Now that you have identified the subject in the sentence, look for the object.

The dog was bitten by the cat.

Whom or what was the cat biting? The dog, of course! Because we don’t know what the dog is up to and it’s being acted upon by something else, we can safely assume that the dog is the object in the sentence.

Step 3: Switch That Passive sentence around

The final step in making the switch is change the word order. Put the subject at the front of the sentence and the object towards the end. Then, use the correct form of the verb.

The cat bit the dog.

Attribution maters, to make clear in your sentence WHO is doing WHAT to WHOM or WHAT. The doer of the action should come first.

By using active verbs, your brain can create a clear image of the doer of the action. You first picture a cat. Then you picture a cat biting a dog. The action stays with the subject.

Imagine if you pictured the dog reacting to being bit first. The cat’s power is gone. It becomes a secondary character in its own story. And we all know cats can’t stand being secondary to anything.

Use an English Grammar Checker

A good grammar checker will highlight instances of the passive voice and propose suggestions. It’s up to you to decide how to address the action of the verbs in question.

ProWritingAid can do the hard work by scanning your document and highlighting every instance of passive voice, auxiliary verbs and the past participle.

Sometimes a passive construction is a good choice, but more often than not, you can reorder the sentence.

Understanding the role of the passive voice is an important english grammar lesson. When in doubt, read your passive sentence aloud and consider if they draw attention to the subject of the sentence.

The Final Word On Use Of The Passive Voice

Powerful writing specifies a clear subject. If your sentence structure obscures the subject, the “who” or “what” performing the action becomes confusing.

You can avoid this problem by changing the end of your sentence so the subject performs the action (main verb).

In doing so, you’ll return the power in your writing to its proper place. The passive form has is place in english too, albeit sparingly.

If you’re in doubt, a good grammar checker like ProWritingAid, will identify instances of the passive voice and suggest stylistic changes.

WHY YOU SHOULD BUY
ProWritingAid
Millions of professionals use ProWriting Aid to improve their writing
  • ✓   Ideal for fiction writers
  • ✓   Helps with self-editing
  • ✓   Insightful writing reports

Bio

Hayley is a former teacher turned writer/content manager. She is the driving force behind all the amazing content on the ProWritingAid blog. Hayley is obsessed with writing techniques and loves creating engaging and informative content. Bonus points if it’s about Star Wars. She is the coauthor of How to Build Your Author Platform on a Shoestring and Museum Hack’s Guide to History’s Fiercest Females.

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