Mastering Passive Voice: A Comprehensive Guide on When to Use and Avoid it

A statue of a writer passively writing at a desk

A statue of a writer passively writing at a desk

Passive voice gets a bad rap from teachers and professors because it’s often seen as a writing no-no. In other words, teachers don’t like it when you use passive voice in your writing. But, it’s not all bad news!

Passive voice can be useful in certain situations, like when the focus is on action rather than the person performing the action, or when the person or things performing the action is unknown or unimportant. It’s all about understanding when and how to use it correctly. Just like with any writing tool, it’s important to know the rules before you break them.

What is passive voice?

When you use an active voice in your writing, it makes it stronger and more direct. That’s because the subject is doing the action of the verb. On the other hand, in the passive voice, the subject is on the receiving end of the action.

It’s important to know that using a passive voice isn’t always wrong. Sometimes, it can be helpful. Keep reading to learn more about how to use the active and passive voice, when the passive voice is a good choice and how to avoid confusion with similar structures.

Active voice vs passive voice

When we talk about grammar, tense tells us when something happens, but the voice tells us whether the subject of a sentence is doing something or having something done to them. When using the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one doing the action.

It’s like this:

  • [subject] + [verb (action done by subject)] + [optional object]

Example: The chef cooked the meal.

But, in the passive voice, the subject is on the receiving end of the action. So in the example above, the meal is ‘receiving’ the action and becomes the subject.

It looks like this:

  • [subject] + [some form of the verb ‘to be’] + [past participle of a transitive verb] + [optional prepositional phrase]

Example: The meal was cooked by the chef.

See how the performer of the action, the cook, becomes a prepositional phrase “by the cook”. But, even though the cook is the one doing the cooking, he’s not the subject of the sentence. With the passive voice, it’s possible to remove him from the sentence entirely:

Example: The meal was cooked.

So, passive voice can make your sentence less exciting by not giving us the performer of the action, but it can be helpful to use it in certain situations.

When Should the Passive Voice Be Used?

If you know exactly who the subject of a sentence is that’s performing an action, use an active voice. An easy way to find examples of passive voice in your essays and articles is to search through them (ex. CTRL + F) for words like is, was, and were then replace these sentences with an active voice version.

Of course, you shouldn’t replace every single passive voice sentence with an active one. It can add a bit of flavor to mix things up. Also, if you’re writing in more formal settings like academic papers or legal write-ups, passive voice is far more common.

For some context, here are three frequent ways the passive voice is used.

#1. In Academia

Example: The subject was given three chocolates and then told to pick their favorite.

#2. If you want to emphasize an important verb or action

Example: The cat was struck by his abusive owners.

#3. News Reporting, especially when talking about unknown subjects 

Example: The woman was assaulted by three unknown assailants.

For most of these cases, the important part of the sentence is the action or verb and the person or thing that’s receiving the action, not the person or thing doing the action.

Utilizing the Passive Voice in Writing for Creative Effect

Passive voice isn’t just for extremely formal settings, you can also mix and match in passive voice to add a certain flair to your writing, too! Here’s a few ways to do that.

#1. Avoiding blame

Passive voice can also be used in writing when you want to avoid assigning blame or assigning responsibility for an action. This can be useful in situations where you want to diffuse tension or avoid confrontation.

For example, instead of writing “John broke the vase,” you could write “The vase was broken.” In the first sentence, it’s clear that John is the person who broke the vase. In the second sentence, the focus is on the vase and the action that happened to it, leaving the reader to infer who might be responsible.

#2. Focusing on an object

Passive voice can also be used to direct the reader’s attention to a specific object or action in your writing. By emphasizing the object of the sentence, rather than the subject, you can make the reader pay more attention to the thing being described. This can be useful in situations where you want to focus the reader’s attention on a particular detail or piece of information.

For example, instead of writing “The thief stole the diamond,” you could write “The diamond was stolen.” In the first sentence, the focus is on the thief and the action they are taking. In the second sentence, the focus is on the diamond and the fact that it has been stolen, drawing the reader’s attention to the valuable object.

#3. Saying things in a softer voice

You can also use it to avoid directly addressing a sensitive or difficult topic in your writing. By using passive voice, you can “beat around the bush” and avoid stating something outright. This can be useful in situations where you want to soften the impact of bad news or difficult information, or where you want to express doubt or uncertainty.

For example, instead of writing “I didn’t do my homework” you could write “My homework wasn’t finished.” In the first sentence, the subject is clearly taking responsibility for not doing the homework. In the second sentence, the focus is on the homework and the fact that it wasn’t completed, avoiding saying who is responsible.

It’s worth noting that this technique can be used in both formal and informal writing, but it should be used with care and in the appropriate context, otherwise, it can make the writing less clear and less direct, making the reader confused or not unable to understand the message clearly.

To Sum it Up

Passive voice isn’t a grammatical mistake, but a matter of writing style.

  • Active voices make sentences clearer and more natural, while a passive voice shifts the emphasis to the object of the action.
  • To form the passive voice, you need to use the verb “to be” and the past participle of the main verb.
  • Passive voice is useful when the object of the action is more important than the subject, particularly in scientific and legal contexts, when the subject is unknown, or when the subject is not relevant.
  • In good writing, it’s better to use the active voice, but sometimes it’s more appropriate to use the passive voice.

Just remember, the best way to learn how to use a passive voice instead of an active voice is through the age-old adage of “practice makes perfect!” As in, the more you write, the more you read, and the more you edit your work and notice a sentence just doesn’t feel right, try switching up its voice style and go from there. Eventually, it’ll become second nature.

Good luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *