What is the passive voice?

Writer & Editor

What is the passive voice?

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Inexperienced writers are often told to avoid the passive voice.

This seems like good advice. If your writing feels dull, replacing a few passive sentences with active ones is a quick fix.

But it has two problems:

  1. The whole concept of passive vs. active voice is confusing. If you can’t tell which one you’re using, how are you supposed to fix it?
  2. It’s tempting to think active good, passive bad, when in fact both are necessary. But how do you know which one to choose?

That’s why I wrote this post: to help you recognize the passive voice in your writing, and show you what to do about it.

Quiz

Which of these sentences is written in the passive voice?

A. The race was won by Hank.
B. The branch supported the cat’s weight.
C. While the wife sighed heavily, her husband furrowed his brow as he considered which way to respond.

—–—

Space
to
prevent
spoilers

—–—

Answer:
A.
(B and C are active.)
Bonus points if you noticed the question is also passive.

Confused? You might have been tripped up by thinking “passive voice” means “not much is happening in this sentence.” But whether a sentence is passive or active has nothing to do with how much stillness or movement the sentence describes. It depends solely on the sentence structure.

Here they are the other way around:

A. Passive: The race was won by Hank.
→ Active: Hank won the race.

B. Active: The branch supported the cat’s weight.
→ Passive: The cat’s weight was supported by the branch.

C. Active: While the wife sighed heavily, her husband furrowed his brow as he considered which way to respond.
→ Passive: While a heavy sigh emanated from the wife, her husband’s brow was furrowed as which way to respond was considered by him.

Explanation

To understand the active voice, just remember three letters: SVO. An active sentence’s structure is subject verb object (or SVO for short).

Active sentence structure: SVO

[Hank] [won] [the race].
[subject] [verb] [object]

Passive sentence structure: not SVO

[The race] [was won] [by Hank].
[subject] [be + verb] [preposition + object]

As you can see, the passive sentence reverses the order of the words in the active sentence. The object from the active sentence—the race—becomes the subject, and the subject, Hank, becomes the object.

Wait a minute. Doesn’t the passive sentence follow SVO too? Yep—but not in a straight row. The passive sentence adds some form of be in front of the main verb, and adds a preposition like by in front of the object.[1] It needs those helper words—like was and by—in between the subject-verb-object words, or else it won’t make sense.

Which one to choose?

Active sentences often say the same thing as passive ones, but in fewer words. That’s why active sentences tend to make for better writing: they force you to trim the fat.

But the passive voice does come in handy sometimes, so choosing between passive and active voice really comes down to what you want to focus on. Anytime you want to focus on what was done, rather than who did it, use the passive voice.

Explanation

An active sentence focuses on who or what did something. Most important is who or what did something—followed by what they did, and to whom (or to what).

A passive sentence focuses on what was done, and to whom (or to what). Who or what performed the action is either unknown, or less important than the action itself.

For instance, if you want to acknowledge a mistake without assigning responsibility for it, you can use the passive voice: “A mistake was made.” This lets you off the hook regarding who made the mistake.

If you wanted to write as clearly as possible, you would use the active voice. But then you’d have to say who’s responsible: “[I/we/someone else] made a mistake.” (Now you can see why corporate spokespeople love using the passive voice.)

Key takeaways

  • The passive voice highlights what was done.
  • The active voice highlights who did it.
  • Active sentences are usually shorter and easier to read.
  • For active sentences, just think SVO: subject verb object.

Notes

[1] It doesn’t have to be be. Other common verbs to use here are have, get, and need. See alternative ways to form the passive voice for an explanation.

© Kate Stern | kate [at] katerstern.com