The passive voice is often villainized by editors and identified by grammar software as a bad writing habit that should be avoided.
While it’s true that the active voice can make your writing stronger and more direct, the passive voice isn’t necessarily a grammatical error. There is a time and place for the passive voice to better present your ideas.
What is the Passive Voice?
When the passive voice is used in a sentence, the subject is acted upon by the verb, whereas with the active voice, the subject performs the action indicated by the verb.
The passive voice places greater importance on the person or thing that is experiencing an action, rather than the person or thing that is performing the action.
The house was built in 1920.
In the sentence above, we are more interested in the house than in who built it.
The same sentence can be rewritten in the active voice, while also disclosing more information:
Sarah’s grandfather built the house in 1920.
The passive voice might be necessary if you don’t know who performed the action, as in the first example above.
Forming the Passive Voice
The passive voice can be formed using the following formula:
Subject + appropriate form of the verb “to be” + past participle + optional prepositional phrase
The passive voice can also be used with a number of other tenses, such as the present continuous, simple past, present perfect, and future (is being/was/has been/will be).
Passive Voice Examples
The examples below illustrate the difference between the passive and active voices.
Passive: The letter was written by her.
Active: She wrote the letter.
Passive: All of the food had been devoured by the guests.
Active: The guests devoured all of the food.
Passive: Ten shares were bought by Alex.
Active: Alex bought ten shares.
Passive: Women are not treated as equals by society.
Active: Society does not treat women as equals.
Passive: The article was written by me.
Active: I wrote the article.
Passive: Alicia was disappointed by the turnout for her party.
Active: The turnout for her party disappointed Alicia.
Passive: The yard was destroyed by the dog.
Active: The dog destroyed the yard.
Passive: The bill will be signed by the President.
Active: The President will sign the bill.
When to Use Passive Voice
As you can see from the above examples, sometimes the passive voice can sound less natural and less clear than the active.
However, there are several cases in which you might want to employ the passive voice for a more effective composition.
When the Actor is Unknown or Irrelevant
As explained earlier, the passive voice is sometimes necessary, especially in cases where you don’t know who performed the action.
My car was stolen last week.
Who stole the car? The speaker probably doesn’t know, which is probably why this is still a problem for her.
Sure, we could write, “Thieves stole my car last week”—but … duh. The important event in this sentence is that the car was stolen, not who stole it.
Sometimes, the performer of a verb is simply irrelevant.
A new shopping center will be built in Palm Desert next year.
We’re not really interested in who will build the mall—and we might not even know—so the passive voice is perfectly acceptable here.
In literature, authors sometimes use the passive voice as an intentional stylistic choice.
From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams:
“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”
Neither of the sentences above identify a subject or performer. However, the action and meaning of the sentences is still clear, and the dry humor shines through perhaps more so than if the active voice had been applied.
In other cases, authors might use the passive voice to create a more polite phrasing (even if ironic) when describing their characters.
Jane Austen gently poked fun at her characters using this method.
From Sense and Sensibility:
“[He] pressed them so cordially to dine at Barton Park every day till they were better settled at home that, though his entreaties were carried to a point of perseverance beyond civility, they could not give offense.”
The meaning might be a tad less clear, but Austen slyly conveys Mr. Middleton’s good intentions—despite his being a nuisance.
To Draw Attention to Certain Facts
Although the passive voice is criticized for being weak and at times unclear, in many instances writers will intentionally use it to draw attention to certain facts over others.
The Declaration of Independence, for example, stresses the fact that all men are created equal—not so much who created them (although that is mentioned).
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In Scientific Writing
In scientific reports, the action being reported is usually given more importance than the performer.
For example, if you’re writing up a report on your science experiment, you would probably write something like:
The solution was then dissolved in water.
It’s not necessary to write that you or your little brother dissolved the solution in this kind of text. What’s important is that the solution was dissolved.
This also achieves an objective tone that is often sought in scientific writing in place of more personal tones.
However, when you need to give credit to someone else, it’s usually best to use the active voice.
Passive: Heart disease is considered the leading cause of death in the United States.
Active (preferred): Researchers have identified heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States.
Deciding Between Passive and Active
Remembering whether to use the passive or active voice can be tricky. Keep in mind that the passive voice is not a grammatical error, but rather a stylistic choice that is best reserved for when you want to give emphasis to the person or thing receiving the action.
Ultimately, however, you should ask yourself which version would sound more natural and clear when deciding how to phrase your sentence.
When do you think it’s acceptable to use the passive voice? Share your thoughts in the comments below!