All about Passive Voice

Passive voice can be confusing!

Some editors and teachers will tell you it’s wrong to use passive voice. (Not true.) And I’ve known writers and editors who weren’t sure what passive voice is – they couldn’t always figure out which sentences were active and which were passive. Let’s clear up these issues today.

First: can you identify the passive voice sentences?

  1. Linda is always right.
  2. I was working full time in the city.
  3. The ball was thrown.
  4. There were mistakes in three of the charts.
  5. The game was won by the Jets.

Answer: only #3 and #5 are passive voice. It’s a common misconception that any sentence with the verb “to be” (is, are, was, were, be, been) is passive. Not true!

Defining passive voice requires a lot of grammar gobbledygook. So I’m going to offer an easier explanation. Compare these sentences:

Jeff composed three songs.  ACTIVE

Three songs were composed by Jeff.  PASSIVE

Three songs were composed.  PASSIVE

In active voice sentences, the doer (“Jeff”) comes first. In passive voice sentences, the doer comes later – or isn’t mentioned at all. (Still puzzled? Keep reading the examples! And remember that “by” is a useful clue that you might have a passive-voice sentence.)

* * * * *

Now we can deal with the second question: Is passive voice bad? Some teachers and editors will tell you it’s always wrong to use passive voice. 

Not true.

Passive voice is useful in two situations: When you don’t want to embarrass someone, and when you want to shift the emphasis in a sentence. Those are the only situations that call for passive voice.

Many writers overuse passive voice – a bad practice because it complicates and weakens your writing. If you have a passive-voice habit, now is the time to break it!

Let’s look at appropriate ways to use passive voice. Compare these sentence pairs:

Joe and Mary left a mess in the break room.  (Active voice – pointing out wrongdoing)

A mess was left in the break room. (Passive voice – kinder)

The accounting department made some careless mistakes in the Roper report.   (Active voice – pointing out wrongdoing)

Careless mistakes were made in the Roper report.   (Passive voice – kinder)

Doug Gaines presented the Citizenship Award.  (Active voice – emphasis on Doug)

The Citizenship Award was presented by Doug Gaines.  (Passive voice – emphasis on the award)

Please note that these are exceptions to a wise principle: Don’t use passive voice.

There’s one more issue: Many professionals think passive voice ensures accuracy and adds credibility to professional writing. They’re wrong, and I’ll explain why in my next post.

A chalkboard that asks if I'm doing this right.

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