In our previous guide, we covered active voice in writing, now it’s time to take a look at the passive voice.
Perhaps you were told that you write too much in the passive voice or perhaps you just want to learn more about it.
In either case, we’ve got you covered!
We’ll be covering the following topics:
What is Passive Voice in Writing?
The definition of passive voice is where the subject of a sentence is acted upon rather than doing the action.
Consider the following example:
Henry was kicked by the donkey.
Henry, instead of doing something, is actually receiving the action (a kick) from the donkey, no less.
If we were to change this sentence into active, we would put the doer of the action.
I.e., the surprisingly agile donkey, at the beginning of the sentence, like so:
The donkey kicked Henry.
Of course, this example is given for the sake of simplicity for defining the passive voice in writing. The actual use of passive voice is much nuanced and more challenging to identify at times.
According to most writing experts, writing in the passive voice is an unforgivable sin. Why do writers hate the passive voice so much?
There are sentences that cannot be phrased better than in passive voice. Take this one for example:
The Prime Minister was slapped at a recent rally.
There is also an infinite number of possibilities where the use of passive voice would not be a sin but politeness.
We will explore all those possibilities and the dos and don’ts of using the passive voice versus the active voice in this article.
Let’s explore other examples and uses for the passive voice in the following sections.
When to Use Passive Voice in Writing?
There are several uses for passive voice in writing. The passive voice, previously deemed pariah, has its uses when it comes to writing.
Here, we will explore a few of the uses of the passive voice in writing.
1. When the person performing the action is unknown or not important
Let’s say you come into your apartment after a busy day at the office, and to your shock, the room has been ransacked. By whom? You do not know.
You call up the police and explain it to them that when you arrived:
The room had been ransacked.
The room had been turned upside down.
The passive voice comes explicitly in handy when reporting a crime to the police, the perpetrators of which are yet unknown.
On the other hand, you can also use the passive voice when the doer of the action is not essential to what you are trying to say.
The large cabbage was taken from the field to the market in a truck.
Here, the truck driver, or whoever arranged the transportation, is not essential. However, the large cabbage itself is the oddity readers would like to know about.
2. Shirking Responsibility (Diplomatic Language)
Politicians like to use the passive voice when they have committed blunders so that the responsibility of their actions does not fall squarely on their shoulders.
Consider this classic from the 2008 financial crisis hearing of Ben Bernanki:
Mistakes were made.
Mistakes were made is a statement that implies that mistakes are made. Nevertheless, the person making should not necessarily be tried for making them.
George Orwell wrote an essay about how the powerful manipulated language to give the impression of saying a lot and yet saying absolutely nothing.
3. Scientific Literature
In science academia, it is common to come across passive writing.
It is a deliberate choice for the scientists to emphasize what is being done in the experiment rather than who is doing the mixing.
Formaldehyde is added to the mixture through a titration flask.
4. To Show Respect and Politeness
We often encounter scenarios where owning up to our mistakes requires that we use the passive voice to avoid sounding rude or brash.
Look at the examples below to see what I mean:
The glass was broken by me.
The secret was spilled by Mary.
Dignitaries were received cordially at the mansion.
Why is it Called Passive Voice?
Passive sentences give the feeling that the action is not actually done by an agent but actually it is imposed from the outside.
The feeling that passive sentences don’t carry energy or activity is why it is called a passive voice.
Verb performs a few functions in a sentence, one of which conveys the feeling of action or inaction.
Consider the sentences below to get a feel for action and passiveness in a sentence:
But it is not recorded that, in a single instance, her skill was called in aid to embroider the white veil which was to cover the pure blushes of a bride. — The Scarlet Letter
Who called (or didn’t call) her skill to embroider? It is not clear. Thus, the sentence is passive.
Now consider Hemingway’s sentence for active voice to illustrate the difference:
…at night, the dew settled the dust, and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf, and now at night it, was quiet, and he felt the difference.
The sentence above is brimming with action verbs, a distinguishing mark in active sentences.
How do You Write in Passive Voice?
Here are a few tips for writing in the passive if and whenever the need arises.
1. Write the subject receiving action at the beginning of a sentence
The simplest and most common way of writing in the passive is to bring the subject acted upon to the forefront of the sentence. Example:
At the battle of Trafalgar, the French were defeated by the British.
2. Use the ‘to be’ forms of the verb (is, am, are, has/have/had been, et cetera)
Using the ‘to be’ forms of the verb and a past participle of the main verb turns sentences into passive voice.
Consider the example below:
Harry was detained by Professor Snape.
3. Use of the ‘by …’ to introduce the actual doer of the sentence
Passive sentences are usually appendaged with the ‘by’ clauses that introduce the actual doer of the sentence.
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
|Active Voice||Passive Voice|
|1.||Sentences with active voice are clear||Sentences with a passive voice are convoluted|
|2.||The verbs are infused with energy||The verbs lack energy and they appear bland within the sentences|
|3.||Verbs in the active voice carry the story forward.||Verbs in the passive voice are passive and cannot move the story forward by way of action|
|4.||The sentences with active construction are short and concise||The sentences with a passive construction are long|
|5.||The sentences are bereft of wordiness||The sentences are wordy|
What are Examples of Using Passive Voice?
Here are a few examples where the passive voice has been used by journalists and writers.
- 28 injured in accidental detonation [Los Angeles Times, 5 July 2013]
- These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two. (George Orwell, A Hanging)
- As a result, the added costs of production are passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices for the finished goods. (Investopedia)
To further explore the subject of passive voice in writing, we also recommend this video by Reedsy:
The use of the passive voice is not a grammatical sin, and it is as viable a choice when it comes to style as the active voice. The choice lies with the writer.
How does the writer want to say what he/she wants to say?
Far from being a useless stylistic choice, it can be handy when the writer wants to diversify their sentence style.
Nate Torres is an entrepreneur, growth marketer, and photographer and writes mostly on those topics. Nate runs his own professional photography business called Nate Torres Photography. Nate enjoys learning about new digital marketing strategy and new ways to think creatively. He is also a photography speaker and author on Photofocus.