Oct 13, 2015

The Dreaded Passive Voice

by Marsha Ward

Since I defended the use of WAS last time, and referred to the fear among writers that using it might bring on a wave of Passive Voice, I thought I'd better explain

  • what passive voice is
  • why it is so dreaded
  • when to avoid it
  • and when it is appropriate to use it.

So what is passive voice?

Does it occur when we use any form of the verb to be in our work? I'm afraid that's what many people think, hence the counsel not to use was. (See my previous post about was here.)

Nope, but the worry about using was perhaps has a little bit of justification, because passive voice usages will always include some form of the verb be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. However, their presence does not mean every usage is passive voice.

To explain correctly, I need to digress into a bit of talk about the construction of sentences, which you may not have learned about in school.

Sentences have at least two parts, whether they are present or implied. These parts are the subject and the predicate, or the verb. The word or words in the predicate make a statement about the subject.
  • I live.
That is a very simple sentence. The subject is I. The verb is live. The word live makes a statement about I. I know that's a very abbreviated explanation, but let's move on.

A verb often speaks of action. It's when you switch things up and make the object of the action into the subject of a sentence that you have passive voice. Let me illustrate.
  • Why was the road crossed by the chicken?
Weird, huh? Also passive voice. And yes, it uses was.

The reason this seems so odd is that the chicken is the one doing the action, but it is not in the spot you'd expect the subject to be. The normal joke (why did the chicken cross the road?) puts the actor or agent in the subject position. The chicken is doing the deed, crossing the road, so it is the actor/agent. Note the more active verb--cross--in place of the verb was.

And right there is the suggestion to use stronger verbs to avoid passive voice, but the verb cross isn't the determining factor in whether or not the sentence is passive. It's the sentence structure that makes the difference.
  • Here's a little tip: passive sentences may include the phrase by the after the verb. Check out the passive example.

Why is passive voice so dreaded?

I think we build up fear because we're unsure about how to use grammatical structure. We don't want to be wrong or appear stupid. Plus, there are myths or misunderstandings to contend with. The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina has a great list of myths and refutations:
Myth 1: Use of the passive voice constitutes a grammatical error.

Use of the passive voice is not a grammatical error. It's a stylistic issue that pertains to clarity--that is, there are times when using the passive voice can prevent a reader from understanding what you mean.

Myth 2: Any use of "to be" (in any form) constitutes the passive voice.

The passive voice entails more than just using a being verb. Using "to be" can weaken the impact of your writing, but it is occasionally necessary and does not by itself constitute the passive voice.

Myth 3: The passive voice always avoids the first person; if something is in first person ("I" or "we") it's also in the active voice.

On the contrary, you can very easily use the passive voice in the first person. Here's an example: "I was hit by the dodgeball."

Myth 4: You should never use the passive voice.

While the passive voice can weaken the clarity of your writing, there are times when the passive voice is OK and even preferable.

Myth 5: I can rely on my grammar checker to catch the passive voice.

See Myth 1. Since the passive voice isn't a grammar error, it's not always caught. Typically, grammar checkers catch only a fraction of passive voice usage.
Once we sort through the myths and understand why they are false, we can use was in active sentences that move things along, totally without anxiety.

When should we avoid using passive voice?

The other thing about using passive voice is that it isn't as clear a method of communication as active voice. Try this on for size:
  • The brakes were slammed on by her as the car sped downhill.
Huh? How about using active voice like this:
  • She slammed on the brakes as the car sped downhill.
Notice the phrase by her in the first version? Clear tip-off of passive voice.

Active voice keeps sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy. It's used in most non-scientific writing, like, you know, novels, and stuff. Creative efforts.

When is it appropriate to use passive voice?

Guess what? There are valid times to choose passive voice. Writers in the sciences use passive voice more frequently than creative writers. When it's unimportant or unknown who is performing the action, or when that is obvious, passive voice is effective.

Passive voice highlights the action and what is acted upon (the object of a sentence) rather than the agent performing the action.
  • Police are being notified that three prisoners have escaped.
  • 100 votes are required to pass the bill.
It de-emphasizes an unknown subject or actor. Thus, it's useful in news reporting, minutes of meetings, and yes, when you don't want the reader to know who is responsible for the action. Use that one with great care!

What are your thoughts?

What do you think about passive voice? If you use it, explain why. If you avoid using a "to be" verb to keep away from it, how has this post helped ease your fears?


  1. Great post. Fortunately, I've figured out passive voice and the "to be" verb. I'd love to see a post on other forms of passive writing and ways to fix it. My pet peeve is "she said" followed by an -ly word. While it's not passive voice per se, it is lazy writing, even though JK Rowling gets away with it, mostly because she manages to tell one heck of a good story.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Betsy. I agree. Writing is so much stronger when one uses action verbs in dialogue tags instead of adverbs. It's something either a writer learns to do, or never understands why it's important. Or just doesn't care!

  2. Great examples Marsha. I think a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that verbs "to be" such as was aren't technically passive voice but they feel very passive because they are weak.

    1. Right you are, Donna. It's much better to use a strong verb, but many new writers haven't got a grasp on that, yet.

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  4. My sons' high school prohibited "to be" conjugations beyond 5 uses in "the drag paper" (a very long composition about The Great Gatsby). The teachers themselves didn't seem to understand why. It was a nightmare. Thank you for the clarity!

    1. Kris, you have my permission to print this out and give it to the teachers. Or email them the link!


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