When You Actually Should Use Passive Voice

Kyle A. Massa
ProWritingAid Marketing and Support Specialist
Published May 07, 2019

passivcevoice

Never use passive voice.

Ever heard that advice before? It's a good rule of thumb and likely the best option if you're not sure what to do. But, like most rules, it's not without exceptions.

That's right. Despite what your teachers told you, there are some instances where you might actually want to use passive voice. In this article, we'll cover some notable examples.

Contents:

  1. But First, What Is Passive Voice?
  2. Expressing Uncertainty
  3. Shifting Emphasis
  4. Backloading Sentences
  5. In Closing

But First, What Is Passive Voice?

It might seem complex at first but passive voice is simple. Consider this sentence:

Libby walked the dog.

Libby is the subject of this sentence because she's the one doing the verb (walking). The dog is the object because it's the one being acted upon (being walked). This sentence uses what's called the active voice, since the subject is clearly acting on the object. Now let's turn this sentence into the passive voice.

The dog was walked by Libby.

Here we've flipped the object and subject to create a passive sentence. To paraphrase the ProWritingAid editing tool, passive constructions like this make your writing less direct. They obscure the subject of the sentence and therefore muddle its meaning. Considering this, you can probably see why the passive voice is generally avoided.

But you probably already knew that. In this article, we're going to focus on the exceptions. Here they are:

Expressing Uncertainty

When something happens and it's unclear who did it, passive voice is oftentimes not just acceptable, but preferred. A few examples:

  • The victim was murdered by an unknown person.
  • The house was set ablaze sometime in the night.
  • The story was passed around campfires for decades.

Since we don't exactly know the subject of these sentences, it's appropriate to use passive voice. As you can see with the first two examples, this often fits well with unsolved crimes.

Of course, you could instead write, "Someone set the house ablaze." But, as we'll see in the next section, that's not always ideal.

Shifting Emphasis

Sentences written in the active voice almost always place the reader's focus on the subject. However, there are some instances when you might want to emphasize the object instead. Consider this example:

  • A Visit From the Goon Squad is one of the best books I've ever read. Jennifer Egan wrote it.

In the first sentence, it feels like the reader's attention should be on the book. Yet in the second sentence, attention is diverted to the author. Now let's try passive voice.

  • A Visit From the Goon Squad is one of the best books I've ever read. It was written by Jennifer Egan.

Here the reader's attention stays on the book in both sentences. That's because we've used passive voice in the second sentence to place emphasis on the object (the book) rather than the subject (the author). It's a subtle but effective technique when used sparingly.

Backloading Sentences

Like the last example, this is another that won't come up often. However, when it does, you'll be glad you had this trick in your back pocket. Consider this sentence:

  • I made myself a tuna melt for lunch. I cooked it on the stove, searing each side to a pleasant golden brown. I stepped away for a moment to get the door, and when I came back, my sandwich had vanished. Then I saw the paw print on the table. My cat must've eaten my lunch.

This passage works fine enough. However, we spend the first three sentences building tension. The narrator put care into making lunch, and now it's gone. Just as we begin to wonder who took it, the first two words of the last sentence give it away. To delay the revelation until the last moment, we might instead try passive voice:

  • Then I saw the paw print on the table. That's when I knew my sandwich had been eaten by my cat.

The same principle applies to comedy. That's because jokes are often funniest when the humor hits at the end of a sentence.

In Closing

Those are a few reasons writers might opt for passive voice. What other ways have you seen it done? Let us know in the comments below!

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Kyle A. Massa
ProWritingAid Marketing and Support Specialist

Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living in upstate New York with his wife and their two cats. He loves the present tense and multiple POV characters. When he grows up, he wants to be a professional Magic: The Gathering player. Visit his website at www.kyleamassa.com or download his debut novel, Gerald Barkley Rocks, for Amazon Kindle today.

Someone recently rejected my sentence, "The hills that rose above the river were covered with a greater and thicker variety of trees," because of the passive voice. But it seemed to me that as one travels, the hills appear before one can see what sort of trees cover them and breaking it up and rearranging the words, spoiled the flow and rhythm. "Picky, picky..."

By mcarvin1 on 07 May 2019, 11:35 PM

I’m a big advocate for active voice, but there are some instances when it just doesn’t sound natural. As an example, the phrase “She was torn” or “She was conflicted” sounds a lot better than “The situation tore at her” or “It conflicted her.” Another example is “He was lost.” If the character is physically lost, how do you make the statement active without making it way more complex than it needs to be? I’m also an advocate of using the least amount of words possible to get the point across, therefore passive voice is appropriate in (not very many) but some cases.

By stevenspaig on 08 May 2019, 03:53 PM

scant

By uwillbetoo on 08 May 2019, 07:10 PM