When to Use Passive Voice
In one of our earliest lessons, we discussed passive voice and why you should usually use active voice instead. However, sometimes passive voice is either useful or necessary. This week, we’re going to explore a handful of situation in which you should use passive voice.
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
Let’s start with a quick recap of the differences between active and passive voice:
Here is an example of active voice:
Mary attended the concert.
“Mary” (a person) is the subject. “The concert” (an event) is the object.
And here is the same sentence rewritten in passive voice:
The concert was attended by Mary.
“Mary” and “the concert” have switched roles. “The concert” is the subject, and “Mary” is the object. In other words, a passive voice sentence flips the intuitive “subject” and “object” around.
Passive voice is vaguer and wordier than active voice. It is less direct and takes more words to convey the same idea. For these reasons, you should strive to write in active voice unless you have a specific reason to use passive voice.
Situations Where You Should Use Passive Voice
Now that we’ve reviewed active vs. passive voice, let’s look at some specific situations where you actually should use passive voice:
First, you can use passive voice as a workaround when you don’t know the identity of whom or what is performing the action:
Stonehenge was erected around 3000 to 2000 BCE.
Second, you can use passive voice when the identity of the “actor” is irrelevant:
The package was delivered yesterday.
Third, you can use passive voice when you want to be deliberately vague about the identity of the actor:
The case was mishandled.
Note that none of these examples contain a true grammatical object. While this lack of an object makes it easy to “work around” omitting the actor in passive voice, it also illustrates why you should keep your use of passive voice to a minimum. If you use passive voice too often, you run the risk of accidentally omitting the actor when he, she, they, or it should be included.
A fourth instance where passive voice is useful is when reciting a truism or otherwise speaking in a very general sense:
History is written by the victors.
In addition, you can use passive voice to emphasize the person or thing acted upon:
The United States Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson.
Finally, some scientific disciplines traditionally use passive voice, especially in lab reports:
The solution was heated to 100 degrees Celsius by a Bunsen burner.