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Recognizing Passive Voice

About a year ago, I wrote a piece about the distinction between the active and the passive voice, but going on the assumption that I’ve had a lot of reader turnover over a year’s time, I thought a refresher might be useful.

When writing in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is clearly the one doing the verb. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is sort of buried. So:

Active: I accidentally left three pounds of scallops in the trunk of your car overnight.

Passive: Three pounds of scallops were accidentally left in the trunk of your car overnight.

In the first case, the “doer” of the action is front and center, and it’s clear who befouled the trunk with seafood. In the second, the action is emphasized over the person performing it, sometimes with the intention of being vague about who did the action.

If you’re unsure whether a sentence is written in the passive voice or not, you can look for these things:

  • A form of the verb “to be”
  • A past participle (usually the -ed form of a verb)
  • Optionally the word “by” followed by a noun

Some examples:

Be verb Past Participle by noun
is bludgeoned by the bludger
was courted by Parsifal
is being contacted by Mildred
has been annihilated by the Cubs
will be inoculated by the nurse

It’s important to know that sentences that use “be” verbs aren’t always passive. “I am hungry” uses the active voice; it’s clear who’s hungry in that sentence. You have to look for both the “be” verb and the past participle to identify sentences written in the passive voice, and remember that the “by” is optional.

Writing instructors tend to discourage use of the passive voice for a few reasons:

  • It tends to add extra words to your sentences. Compare “Bocephus jumped over the hedge” to “The hedge was jumped over by Bocephus.”
  • It leads to vagueness about who did the action (especially when the “by” bit is left off).
  • It changes the normal word order in a sentence, moving the subject after the verb, which can be a little harder to parse.

Sometimes, using the passive voice is actually desirable, though. For example, in a sentence above, I wrote that “the action is emphasized over the person performing it.” In this case, what’s important isn’t who is emphasizing the action but the fact of the emphasis of the action. It would have been strange to have written “the writer emphasizes the action over the person performing it” in the context above. We don’t care about the writer here. We care about what she’s doing, so let’s shine a spotlight on the verb rather than the subject by using the passive voice.

As you write, pay attention to sentences that wind up following the passive voice formula given in the table above. If you find one, take a moment to think about whether the sentence is stronger or weaker for using the passive voice. If the “doer” is important, switch the sentence to the active voice and see if it reads a little better. If the action is more important than the subject or if they’re on equal footing but the sentence sounds better rhythmically in the passive voice, feel free to try the passive on for size instead.

UPDATE:ย See this comment for a clarification about subjects and the passive voice and a link to a much more technical explanation of sentence subjects. Also check the comments if you want to see this grammar nerd get busted for using the accursed dangling modifier. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  1. Hahahahahaha! Great Post! One of my contributors has a police background. Cops always use the passive voice. They’re terrible about it. I’m constantly re-editing her pieces, and begging her to stop. (I call it Cop-speak.)

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  2. A great post – I will be linking to it in the academic writing course I’m teaching this fall. Thanks!

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  3. This is a pretty good description of the passive, I have a couple of quibbles with your description of subjects

    “When writing in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is clearly the one doing the verb.”

    Actually, this isn’t true for all active voice sentences, and is only a generalization. I wrote a whole post about this, if I may so blatantly self-promote.

    “It changes the normal word order in a sentence, moving the subject after the verb, which can be a little harder to parse.”

    The subject does not move in the passive voice. What happens is that the noun phrase acting as object in the active voice is the one that becomes subject in the passive voice. But the subject never moves. What changes is the order of the semantic roles, not the syntactic ones. (my post also covers this a little bit).

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    1. Linguischick, there is a comma splice in your opening sentence and no period at the end–probably just careless proofing.

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      1. docauntjane’s gentle reprimand notwithstanding, my thanks go to linguischtick for saving me the trouble of providing this clarification. I am off now to check out your post. ๐Ÿ™‚ Before I do, I should mention that I have never been able to explain the active and the passive voices without the use of pens of different colours to indicate the various elements in the sentence and how they are modified when one switches from the active to the passive and vice versa. ESL students seem to understand the process more readily this way.

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    2. Thanks for this! For all that I figure I know the rules pretty well, I had never learned that (as my Harbrace handbook confirms) “when you make a verb passive, the object of the active verb becomes the subject of the passive verb.” I appreciate the clarification and will update the post to point down here to your comment.

      As for generalization, I usually try to cover the general cases here, leaving out some of the more tricky cases by design. (For example, I intentionally omitted cases in which the passive can be formed without the “be” verb because that just complicates things for people who’re scanning their writing for the most frequent offenses.)

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  4. Daryl, thank you for articulating so well the difference between the active voice and the passive voice. I have unconsciously used both, but I have never heard it explained the way that you did. I am always eager for new tips!

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  5. This post is a great help because it refreshes my thoughts on sentence structure. I plan on starting my blog sometime this month,. Thank you

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  6. Daryl, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but your opening first sentence in paragraph 2 has a dangling modifier: “WHEN WRITING IN THE ACTIVE VOICE, the subject of the sentence …
    etc.” The subject of the sentence is not doing the writing. By omitting “you are” or “one is” after “When,” you’ve created an introductory adverbial clause that has nothing it can logically modify. Aside from that error, your discussion of active and passive voices is rather good.

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      1. Daryl, I am a professional writer and editor with a Ph.D. in English and 33 years of experience teaching writing and grammar on the college and university level–all of which gives me an edge, of course! I am VERY glad to see some people of younger generations are using the Harbrace, which I used in my classes for decades. I admire your interest in grammar and syntax. Keep at it!

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  7. thank you for writing this! passive voice has always confused me so! it personally offends me when wordpress points out my passive voice, and i yell “shut up! how’s that for passive, wordpress?!” at my computer screen. your post, however, clarified many things for me.

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  8. Interesting post! I have the WordPress spellcheck set to point out passive sentences. I’ve always known that passive sentences are less desirable (in general), but I seem to write a lot of them in my blog posts. I agree that passive sentences do have a time and place in writing and shouldn’t be avoided altogether. Cheers!

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  9. Thanks for the tips. I am always getting flagged for using the passive voice. Drives me crazy. And I do go in and change it most of the time. But sometimes, the passive voice seems to work…(I will be saving this to refer back to)

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  10. Daryl, as usual, this post was read by me with alacrity. No passive voice is ever used by me on my blog, unless I want to say “a good time was had by all.”

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    1. “No passive voice is ever used by me on my blog” – only in comments on blogs by others? I assume you either wanted to use it for effect/irony or you meant to say “I never use passive voice on my blog” ;o)

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  11. Daryl, thanks for this very useful guide to spotting the passive voice. Removing or reducing the number of passive constructions makes a great start to making copy clearer and more powerful.

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  12. Excellent article. Thanks for the explanation.

    I would like to know if it is fine if I use active voice for the first sentence and then immediately switch over to the passive voice for the next sentence within the same paragraph or even the article. Is it fine if we switch between active and passive voices arbitrarily?

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    1. Well, it all depends on context. If the action is being done by the same person in both sentences, the switch would be hard to justify unless you wished to switch emphasis to the verb for rhetorical effect. For example, you might write something like this:

      The fluffy pink bunny hopped over the chasm. The chasm was hopped over by the bunny. Chasms being what they are — generally un-hop-overable — you’ve surely guessed by now that the fluffy pink bunny was a giant bunny.

      That’s of course a stupid example, but hopefully it illustrates the point. The switch to passive is significant because it emphasizes something important about the verb used. In other cases, such a switch could come off as wordy and evasive. But again, it all depends on context. If you’re doing it just to avoid repetition (“He hopped over the chasm. He hopped back over the chasm.”), there’s probably a better way to structure your sentences or organize your paragraph.

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  13. Thanks for this post! As someone who speaks and write English as second language, it is easy to forget everything I’ve learnt in school. I can’t remember certain grammar rules and just write and say whatever that I think make senses. It’s the art of hearing of what is right to say without clearing through grammar rules. ๐Ÿ˜›

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  14. I’ve taught English in college for nearly 30 years (alternatively, “English in college was taught (by me)”), and this is the best explanation of active\passive voice I’ve seen. Amazingly, the difference baffled some of my students, terminally even.

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  15. What you say seems to put the standard description of passive verb use quite well, but I personally have a problem with the standard description, particularly the statement that “the action is emphasized over the person performing itโ€. My problem is that I feel you don’t have to use the passive to achieve this effect – a great many passives, especially those without “by”, can be paraphrased by an active. Your own sentence that I have just quoted could be paraphrased as “the action has more emphasis than the person performing it”, where the active “has” is used (occurs) instead of the passive “is emphasized”. For more examples of passives paraphrased as actives, I (sheepishly) ask you to check my own website. The question that you then have to ask is what effect preferring a passive to an active has. My theory is that the passive without “by” does not so much hide the “doer” (or whatever) of the action as indicate its existence without mentioning it. So your choice of “is emphasized” helps the reader to recognise that the emphasizing is a conscious action by an unmentioned person (in this case a writer), and not something happening without human direction. How right you are to question those who advise against using the passive under any circumstances!

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  16. Thanks for the tips. Its a big help for those who are not good in English grammar. Specially for me. Hehehe.

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