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When To Pass on Passive Voice

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There’s a time and place for passive voice. We’ll explain what it is and when you should (or shouldn’t) use it.

In many cases, passive voice weakens writing, but there are cases where it is appropriate.
Most of the time, it’s best to avoid passive voice.
What Is Passive Voice?

  • The voice of a verb refers to the subject that is performing the verb, or the subject that is having the verb done to them.
  • The passive voice structure is direct object-verb-subject.
  • Unlike active voice, passive sentences emphasize the result of the action.
    • ○ Active: The bird ate the seeds.
      ○ Passive: The seeds were eaten by the bird.

To know when you should or shouldn’t use passive voice, you must first understand what it is. Passive voice is when a sentence puts the direct object before the verb, and the subject after the verb. In other words, a passive sentence emphasizes the results (or the recipient) of the action, instead of the subject that committed the action.

Usually, the active voice is the safer bet and results in clearer, more direct writing. However, there are a few circumstances where passive voice is appropriate. If you’re scratching your head and still asking yourself what passive voice is, don’t panic. You will learn everything you need to know about passive voice after reading this article.

A passive sentence can sometimes be unnecessarily wordy.

What Is Passive Voice?

To thoroughly understand passive voice, you should know the subject, verb, and direct object of a sentence. Let’s do a quick review:

The school’s basketball team won the championship game.

In this sentence, the school’s basketball team is the subject (the person, place, or thing that performs the action). The verb (the word that refers to the action or state of being) is won. And the direct object (a noun or pronoun that follows an action verb) is the championship game.

The example sentence uses the active voice, meaning it has a subject-verb-direct object structure. In passive sentences, the direct object comes before the verb, and the subject after the verb. Here’s the example sentence in passive voice:

The championship game was won by the school’s basketball team.

Passive sentences are composed by using a form of to be followed by the past participle form of a verb. They also require a preposition.

The stove was turned on by the sous-chef.

The passive voice emphasizes the result of the action rather than who or what performed the action.

Remember that passive voice requires transitive verbs (verbs that demand an object).

Here are a few more examples of sentences in both active and passive voice:

We ordered takeout.
Takeout was ordered by us.
People from all over the world love the band.
The band is loved by people all over the world.
The fire destroyed many houses.
Many houses were destroyed by the fire.
The substitute teacher will provide instructions.
Instructions will be provided by the substitute teacher.
The students are learning Spanish.
Spanish is being learned by the students.

What’s Wrong With Passive Voice?

Many writing guides advise avoiding passive voice. Why? What’s wrong with passive voice? It’s not that passive voice is grammatically incorrect (it’s not). But compared to active voice, it can be too wordy, unclear, and indirect.

Passive voice makes your readers work a little harder to decipher the message of your sentence. That’s why it’s best to use an active voice most of the time.

Active—My wife prepared lunch.
Passive—Lunch was prepared by my wife.

Notice how both sentences express the same thing, but the active sentence has four words, whereas the passive sentence has six. Because passive voice can make sentences unnecessarily long, it’s a good idea to avoid passive voice. There are some instances where the passive structure is appropriate, though.

Quick Tip

The passive voice comes up a lot in written text (and speech). Many writers don’t even notice when they’re using it, or that an alternative active sentence is possible. That’s why using LanguageTool can significantly strengthen your writing.

This intelligent text editor can identify the use of passive voice in your writing so that you can rephrase it to active voice. It can also correct spelling and grammar mistakes, quickly provide synonyms, and recommend stylistic improvements. Keep in mind that users can turn off the passive voice rule whenever they want.

When Passive Voice is Okay To Use

When a sentence specifically mentions people, it’s best to use active voice. However, sometimes the subject is unknown or insignificant. In this situation, it’s best to use passive voice. Let’s consider the following sentences:

Active—Someone robbed The Shell Supermarket early yesterday morning.
Passive—The Shell Supermarket was robbed early yesterday morning.

Passive voice is appropriate in this example because the person who robbed the supermarket is unknown. It’s also suitable for emphasizing the recipient of the action rather than the subject who performed it.

Wordle was bought by The New York Times.

The structure of the above sentence brings attention to “Wordle.” However, if you think “The New York Times” is what needs to be accentuated, then switch it to active voice:

The New York Times bought Wordle.

To convert a sentence from passive voice to active, consider who or what is performing the action and shift them to the subject of the sentence.

Passive—The children were taken to the park by their parents.
Active—The parents took their children to the park.
Passive—The money was stolen by me.
Active—I stole the money

The active voice structure is subject-verb or subject-verb-direct object. On the other hand, the passive voice structure is direct object-verb-subject. Although there are a few circumstances where using passive voice is okay, it’s usually better to write in the active voice. Doing this can help you avoid wordiness and is one of the many well-known tips that improve your writing. Now you know when and why you should pass on passive voice.

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