The party was attended by the city’s rich and famous. A good time was had by all, including you, mostly because your jokes were all laughed at and your stories all applauded for. For the first time in your life, popular is how you felt, and this feeling was greatly appreciated by you.
If you think this passage feels…off, you have a good ear. But what’s wrong with this passage? Why does it somehow sound so awkward and vague?
If you don’t already know, you can probably look at the title of this post and guess: it’s because the sentences are written in the passive voice.
You’ve probably heard writers, editors, and teachers talk about active and passive voice and warn you to avoid passive sentences at all costs, but exactly what is the passive voice? Why do most people think it’s so bad? And is there ever a time when you should use the passive voice?
A passive sentence, or a sentence written in the passive voice, is a sentence construction in which the object of an action becomes the sentence’s subject and appears before the verb rather than after it. Consider the following example:
In the above sentence, Mia is currently the subject. But what’s the action in this sentence? It’s pick up. And who will perform the action of picking Mia up from day care? Laura. Because Laura, the doer of the action, or the “actor,” is not the subject of this sentence, this is a passive sentence.
Often in passive sentences, the actor isn’t present at all, as in this example:
Who will pick Mia up from day care? Nobody knows!
So what’s the difference between active and passive voice, and how can we turn the above examples into active sentences?
First, what is the passive voice again? It means the person or thing acted upon is the subject of the sentence. Active voice is the opposite of this: in an active sentence, the actor is the subject of the sentence and appears before the verb.
See the difference? Laura, the actor of the action pick up, is now the subject of the sentence.
Just remember, when you’re thinking about passive voice vs. active voice, in active sentences, the subject performs the action, and in passive sentences, the person or object that receives the action is the subject.
Although the passive voice is not a grammar error, it can have several negative effects on your writing, including diminishing your writing’s impact and making readers work harder than they should to understand what you’re saying. For these reasons, teachers and editors often say to eliminate the passive voice from your writing. But what’s the trick for how to avoid the passive voice? Make your sentences active, like we did in the examples above. A good way to locate passive sentences in your writing is to look for sentences containing forms of the verb to be and in which the actor either is missing or appears after the verb and is introduced with the preposition by.
A common myth is that all sentences that contain some form of the verb to be are automatically passive sentences. This isn’t true. Consider this example:
In this sentence, will be is a verb describing Mia’s state of being rather than an action. Because it describes Mia’s state of being and not anyone else’s, Mia is the subject of both the verb and the sentence, which means this is an active sentence.
It’s true that in the passive voice vs. active voice discussion, active voice usually wins as the most effective sentence construction. But though many people will tell you to completely eliminate the passive voice from your writing, there are several instances in which passive voice is not only acceptable but even preferred. If you know when to use the passive voice and when to avoid it, you’ll be able to use it intentionally and to beneficial effect. Here are some situations in which you might use passive sentences:
Sometimes, you might not know the person or thing that performs the action, in which case the passive voice is inevitable.
If you don’t know who robbed the bank, well, you can’t say who robbed it.
If you want a sentence to focus on the person or thing acted upon rather than the person or thing performing the action, you might intentionally cast the sentence using the passive voice.
Because your readers are probably more curious about the bank robbers than the people who are trying to catch them, the passive version of this sentence better captures readers’ attention.
If you wish to avoid placing blame or responsibility on a specific person, you might use the passive voice to cast ambiguity over the situation.
Who made the mistakes? Because the actor is missing in this passive sentence, no one is directly blamed for the mistakes.
Though the passive voice is sometimes useful, usually it does more harm than good, specifically because passive sentences are often vague and difficult to decipher. As we’ve seen in our example sentences, it’s often hard to tell who the actor is in passive sentences, and in some cases, the ambiguity of passive sentences can even suggest a lack of insight or integrity on the part of the writer, as in our bank robber examples. If you’re writing a formal piece, such as an academic paper, try to avoid the passive voice as much as possible to ensure your readers easily understand your meaning and don’t suspect you’re withholding or hiding information from them.
Hopefully, you now realize that the difference between active and passive voice isn’t as confusing as it may seem. Next time you hear someone say, “What is the passive voice?,” you’ll be the one with the answer!
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