The passive voice is often maligned by teachers and professors as a bad writing habit. Or, to put that in the active voice: Teachers and professors across the English-speaking world malign the passive voice as a bad writing habit.
What is the passive voice?
In general, the active voice makes your writing stronger, more direct, and, you guessed it, more active. The subject is something, or it does the action of the verb in the sentence. With the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by some other performer of the verb. (In case you weren’t paying attention, the previous two sentences use the type of voice they describe.)
But the passive voice is not incorrect. In fact, there are times when it can come in handy. Read on to learn how to form the active and passive voices, when using the passive voice is a good idea, and how to avoid confusing it with similar forms.
The difference between active and passive voice
Here’s the formula for the active voice:
[subject]+[verb (performed by the subject)]+[optional object]
In a passive voice construction, the grammatical subject of the clause receives the action of the verb. So the ball from the above sentence, which is receiving the action, becomes the subject. The formula:
[subject]+[some form of the verb to be]+[past participle of a transitive verb]+[optional prepositional phrase]
That last little bit—“by Chester”—is a prepositional phrase that tells you who the performer of the action is. But even though Chester is the one doing the kicking, he’s no longer the grammatical subject. A passive voice construction can even drop him from the sentence entirely:
How’s that for anticlimactic?
When (and when not) to use the passive voice
If you’re writing anything with a definitive subject that is performing an action, you’ll be better off using the active voice. And if you search your document for occurrences of was, is, or were and your page lights up with instances of passive voice, it may be a good idea to switch to active voice.
That said, there are times when the passive voice does a better job of presenting an idea, especially when the performer of the action of a sentence’s verb is very general or diffuse, is unknown, or should get less emphasis than the recipient of that action, including in certain formal, professional, and legal contexts. Here are three common uses of the passive voice:
In broad statements about widely held opinions or social norms
The writer of this sentence is communicating that they believe enough people share the opinion that tipping less than 20 percent is rude to qualify as a consensus. In other words, the performer of the action—the people doing the considering—is so general that it can be left out of the sentence entirely.
In reports of crimes with unknown perpetrators or other actions with unknown doers
If you knew who stole the car, you might be closer to getting it back. The passive voice here emphasizes the stolen item and the action of theft.
The emphasis here is on the grass, which presumably is observably shorter. Someone must have cut it, but whoever it was is not the concern of this sentence.
In scientific contexts
Who placed the rat in the maze? Scientists, duh. But that’s less important than the experiment they’re conducting. Therefore, passive voice.
When the writer or speaker wants to avoid blame
Sometimes, someone wants to acknowledge that something unpleasant happened without making it crystal -clear who’s at fault. The classic example:
Who made them? Is anyone taking responsibility? What’s the solution here? One political scientist dubbed this kind of construction the “past exonerative” because it’s meant to exonerate the speaker/writer from whatever foul may have been committed. In other words, drop the subject, get off the hook.
In any other situation where you want to keep the focus on an action and/or the recipient of the action
How many people can remember off the top of their heads who swears in presidents? Clearly, the occasion of swearing in the commander in chief is the thing to emphasize here.
In this case, we know what brought about the action: It was the experience of traveling alone in South America. But the thing the sentence most urgently wants us to know is that a person, Cleo, had an important thing happen to them. So making the recipient of the action (Cleo) the subject of the sentence, using the passive voice, and tucking the performer of the action (the experience) after the action as the object of the preposition by makes sense.
In each of the above contexts, the action itself—or the person or thing receiving the action—is the part that matters. That means the performer of the action can be absent from the sentence altogether or appear in a prepositional phrase with by. Although some of these examples are formal, others show that the passive voice is often useful and necessary in daily life. In each of the sentences below, the passive voice is natural and clear for one of the reasons in the list above. Rewriting these sentences in the active voice renders them sterile, awkward, or syntactically contorted.
Passive: Bob Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident.
Active: A motorcycle accident injured Bob Dylan.
Passive: Elvis is rumored to be alive.
Active: People rumor Elvis to be alive.
Passive: Don’t be fooled!
Active: Don’t allow anything to fool you!
Creative ways to use the passive voice in writing
The above examples show some common uses of the passive voice, but some writers and speakers take advantage of the shift in emphasis it provides for other reasons. Here are some uses for the passive voice as a stylistic decision that suits the author’s writing goals.
Beating around the bush
Jane Austen is a master of poking fun at her characters so euphemistically that it seems almost polite, and the passive voice is one of her favorite methods for doing that.
Austen could have rephrased this sentence like so:
Though Mr. Middleton carried his entreaties to a point of perseverance beyond civility, they could not give offense.
Though maybe she means something closer to:
Mr. Middleton repeated his invitations beyond the point of politeness and into pushiness, but he meant well and they didn’t feel they could say “no.”
In cases like this, the passive voice allows for more polite phrasing, even if it’s also a little less clear. In this specific case, Austen’s use of the passive also abets her gentle humor and vivid characterization.
Directing the reader’s attention
This is like the grass getting cut or the president being sworn in: The recipient of the action of the verb is more important than the performer of the action.
Here, you could invert the sentence to say “Historians evoked that treasure” and so on. But that would take the focus away from that oh-so-intriguing treasure and corpse. And since the historians are less important here, the author makes the choice to stress the key idea of the sentence through the passive voice.
Here’s another famous example that puts the emphasis on what happens to the recipient instead of on what the performer is doing:
“All men” (these days, we take this to mean all people) gets boosted to the front of the phrase because the people and their equality and rights are the focus. It makes sense that a statement declaring independence would focus on the citizens who get that independence, after all.
Passive voice misuse
Sometimes what looks like passive voice isn’t passive voice at all. Even the most careful eye can mistake the following sentences for being in passive voice.
Chester’s favorite activity is kicking.
The bank robbery took place just before closing time.
There is nothing we can do about it.
There were a great number of dead leaves covering the ground.
Despite what any well-meaning English teachers may have told you, none of the sentences above are written in the passive voice. The sentence about the leaves, in fact, was (wrongly) presented as an example of the passive voice by none other than Strunk and White in The Elements of Style.
Using the verb to be doesn’t automatically put a verb phrase into the passive voice. You also need a past participle. That’s how to keep passive voice masqueraders from fooling you.
Passive voice summed up
- The passive voice isn’t a grammatical error; it’s a matter of style.
- Use the active voice if it makes your sentence sound clearer and more natural.
- Forming passive voice requires the verb to be and a past participle.
- The passive voice is your friend when the thing receiving an action or the action itself is the important part of the sentence—especially in scientific and legal contexts, times when the performer of an action is unknown, or cases where the subject is distracting or irrelevant.
- When it comes to good writing, don’t be passive—even if your sentences sometimes need to be.