Passive Voice

What is passive voice? Grammatically speaking, passive voice occurs when the person or thing performing an action is the object, not the subject, of a sentence. Passive voice reads like an action is happening to someone or something, rather than that person or thing taking the action. While not grammatically incorrect, passive voice is something you should strive to avoid in your own writing. Passive voice is more vague and wordy than active voice. It is less direct and takes more words to convey the same idea.

Identifying passive voice becomes easy once you know what to look for. You may have learned that passive voice involves “to be” verbs. However, that is only half the story. A passive voice sentence also requires a past participle. Searching for a “to be” verb followed by a past participle (which typically ends in “ed”) is a reliable formula for rooting out passive voice.

Let’s look at some examples of sentences written in passive and active voice:

Passive voice: The bill was vetoed by the President.

Active voice: The President vetoed the bill.

“The President” is the object of the first sentence. You could place a period after “vetoed” and still have a complete sentence. In the world of passive voice, the person who vetoed the bill is an extra piece of information. In the second sentence, “the President” is essential to the construction of the sentence. If you remove him or her from the equation, the entire sentence falls apart.

The same holds true for the next example:

Passive voice: The concert is being attended by almost a thousand people.

Active voice: Almost a thousand people are attending the concert.

Reading the first sentence, you could be forgiven for thinking that “almost a thousand people” are secondary to the event they are attending. Rewriting this sentence using active voice puts the focus back on the people attending the concert. Also notice that both passive voice examples take a few more words to get the point across than their active voice counterparts do.

When you’re worried that you’re falling into the trap of passive voice, ask yourself one important question: Does it sound like the subject is doing something, or does it sound like the subject is having something done to them? Passive voice is not inherently evil. There will be times when you’ll need to use passive voice to avoid making other grammatical errors. In general, however, seek to use active voice whenever possible. Your writing will be simpler, stronger, and easier to understand.