New feature: Did you know that the ProWritingAid editor now offers an option to rewrite your sentences in the active voice?
There is certainly a time when the passive voice can be used effectively, but as with all writing, clarity is preferable. So follow this simple rule: Don’t be passive, stay active!
That’s right! Instead of simply identifying instances of passive sentence construction, ProWritingAid can fix your work for you. No more subject-hunting for you!
What is passive voice anyway?
When using the passive voice, the writer inserts a form of the verb ‘to be’ (is, was, were, are) in order to draw attention to the object of the sentence, as opposed to the subject.
- Active voice: Joe hit Fred.
- Passive voice: Fred was hit by Joe.
The active voice is much stronger than the passive voice and it makes writing simpler and clearer to read. A reader’s brain can easily understand the simple active sentence: “Joe hit Fred.” Joe, (the subject) hit Fred (the object).
In the passive sentence “Fred was hit by Joe,” Joe is still the subject, but the reader doesn’t know that until the very end of the sentence. Fred is just hangin’ out, an object with no clear purpose. In a simple example like this, it's not too difficult to understand, but in longer, more complex sentences, it can be harder to follow.
How do I change passive voice into active?
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 shopping cart hit Harry.
- Passive: The bank was robbed by the 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.
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.
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.
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
Your focus is on the object, rather than the subject
- Pesticides were discovered in 80% of supermarket fruit by researchers at NYU.
When you want to be deliberately vague about responsibility
- Mistakes were made.
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.
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.