Understanding Passive Voice

Here’s an instant lesson in passive voice: How to recognize it, why you should avoid it (most of the time), and how to fix it.

The first step is to understand what passive voice is (and what it is not – a problem even for some professional writers). Compare these two sentences:

Jake threw the ball. ACTIVE

The ball was thrown by Jake. PASSIVE

In general, your sentences should tell who did what. Avoid roundabout verbs (is being baked by, was written by):

The cake for the wedding is being baked by Joellen. PASSIVE

Joellen is baking the cake for the wedding. ACTIVE

This essay was written by Jon. PASSIVE

Jon wrote this essay. ACTIVE

Active voice is usually a better choice than passive voice. There are exceptions, however. Sometimes you want to focus on what happened, not the person who did it. Passive voice can be useful in these situations:

Dirty dishes were left in the sink last night. PASSIVE

The money was stolen early Tuesday morning. PASSIVE

Simple enough…or at least it should be simple. Problems frequently arise because writers don’t always identify passive voice accurately.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that every was or is signals passive voice. Compare these two sentences:

Jane was shopping for a wedding gift. ACTIVE

A wedding gift was bought by Jane. PASSIVE

Another warning: Don’t assume that you need to put an active person into every sentence. The examples below are active voice even though they don’t feature active people:

A new way to format the article occurred to me. ACTIVE

That happens to Mary at least once a week. ACTIVE

The software quickly became outdated. ACTIVE

This behavior must stop. ACTIVE

Mom is resting. ACTIVE

Even professional writers sometimes experience confusion about passive voice. Paul Payack declared that Barack Obama was using passive voice when he said, “There will be setbacks.” Not true! Statements beginning with there (there is, there were, there will be) are active voice:

There were three items on the meeting agenda. ACTIVE

There will be no meeting tonight. ACTIVE

Taking a few moments to learn what passive voice is – and, equally important, what it isn’t – can help you ensure that your writing is vigorous and concise.

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D., is a longtime English professor, a Shaw scholar, and the author of eleven published books.

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