Passive voice is one of the most polarizing bad writing habits out there. Many self-proclaimed grammar snobs consider passive voice to be incorrect.
Here’s the thing: passive voice isn’t actually grammatically incorrect. However, it’s often stylistically better to use active voice.
What's the difference between active and passive voice?
The passive voice means that you have written the object of your sentence first and then put the subject of your sentence at the end.
Let's look at some examples of passive and active voice:
With each sentence, think about who is doing the action. In the above example, Joe is the subject, he is the do-er. He is doing the recycling, and the bottle is the object of the recycling. Both sentences are essentially saying the same thing, but in the first one, the focus is on the bottle; in the second, the focus is on Joe.
In the first example you have to wait until the end of the sentence to find out who is doing the action, which means your sentence has less impact. Action and the verbs showing action is what gives your writing power. It’s usually better to put your action up front.
Here are a couple more examples:
Imagine that you're painting a picture of the scene in your reader’s head. They can’t really picture the scene until they know who has done the action.
Don't believe us? We're backed up by our friend George who has sold a book or two in his time:
Passive voice can be unclear
With passive voice, you can construct a grammatically correct sentence without showing who or what is performing the action.
The book was read.
That sentence is grammatically correct because it has a subject (“the book”) and a verb (“was read”). But who read it? It feels unsatisfying and I don't have a picture in my head.
Passive voice can be open to interpretation
Sometimes, passive voice leaves your sentence open for interpretation by the reader, especially when it’s uncertain who or what is performing the action in the sentence.
Consider these examples:
An error was made in my account. (Who made the error: you, or the bank, or some nefarious person bent on ill intent?)
Martial arts training was conducted in four schools. (Who conducted the training? Iron Fist or Jackie Chan?)
When you don’t specify who’s doing the action, it gets confusing.
Wait! There are a few scenarios when passive voice is best.
Like most writing rules, there are exceptions! Let’s take a quick look at when passive voice works best.
1) When the doer of the action is unknown.
The bank was robbed on Tuesday.
In the above instance, we don’t know who robbed the bank.
2) When the doer of the action is irrelevant.
The Empire State Building was completed in 1931.
In this case, we are not concerned with who built the Empire State Building.
3) Your focus is on the object, rather than the subject.
Pesticides were discovered in 80% of supermarket fruit by researchers at NYU.
4) When you want to be deliberately vague about responsibility.
Mistakes were made.
Unless your sentence falls into one of those four categories, there is a good chance that you can improve clarity by rewriting.
Changing the passive voice into the active voice is simple. For our next example, we’ll take a more complex passive sentence.
Passive voice: The lazy dog was bitten by the quick brown fox.
Step 1: Locate your subject.
The first step in the process is locating the subject. The subject is the person or thing that is taking an action.
Is the dog the subject? It may be the first noun in the sentence, but what was it doing? The dog was doing nothing, so it can’t be the subject.
The fox however, was doing something: biting. Therefore she is the subject of the sentence.
Step 2: Locate your object.
Now that you have identified the subject of the sentence, look for the object of the sentence.
Who or what was the fox biting? The dog, of course! Since we don’t know what the dog is up to, and he’s being acted upon by something else, we can safely assume that he is the object of the sentence.
Step 3: Switch your sentence around.
The final step in making the switch is putting the subject at the front of the sentence and the object towards the end.
Make it clear in your sentence WHO is doing WHAT to WHOM. This helps your brain create an image in your mind. You can picture the fox first and then have it bite the dog. It's much more difficult if you have to picture the biting first and then add the dog.
Give it a try before reading the active version of our dog/fox sentence below, and see how you do by comparing it to our example.
Active voice: The quick brown fox bit the lazy dog.
A few more examples of changing passive to active voice.
Passive: Harry was hit by the runaway shopping cart.
Active: The runaway shopping cart hit Harry.
Passive: The bank was robbed by thieves.
Active: Thieves robbed the bank.
Passive: The bartender was asked by Officer MacDonald if he had seen the missing girl.
Active: Officer MacDonald asked the bartender if he had seen the missing girl.
Passive: The book was put back onto the shelf by the librarian.
Active: The librarian put the book back onto the shelf.
Passive: The students were dropped off by the bus driver in front of the museum.
Active: The bus driver dropped off the students in front of the museum.
How do I use an editing tool to find passive voice in my writing?
The ProWritingAid editing tool will highlight all instances of passive voice in your text so that you can check to see if they should be re-written.
How do I know if I need to rewrite a flagged sentence?
Here are some questions to ask yourself when considering whether or not to rework the passive voice sentences:
Is the subject of the sentence unclear when it should be clear?
Is the sentence too wordy or confusing?
If the answer is “yes” to either of these questions, you’ll likely want to change the sentence from passive to active voice.
Are you trying to be deliberately vague?
Is the subject of the sentence purposely unknown?
If the answer is “yes” to either of these questions, you may want to leave your sentence in the passive voice.
More Reading About Passive Voice
If you'd like to read more about passive voice, you should check out these articles.