October 1, 2015 | Posted in: Writing & Grammar Tips, XterraWeb Book Blog

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Passive Voice: Myths and Facts

Passive Voice:  Myth vs. Fact article by Kelly Hartigan of XterraWeb

Many people have been taught, or convinced, that passive voice should never be used and active voice should always be used. Some people have gone so far as to say there is a "rule" that using passive voice is wrong.

As with many "rules" about writing, this is another one that began as a good general principle and over time morphed into an inflexible rule. The primary underlying reason behind this is that active voice is typically preferred to passive voice as it is often stronger.

Overuse of passive construction is a secondary reason for the "rule." Passive voice is frequently seen by those who are trying to sound formal or academic. It is commonly seen in business, government, and academic writings. It is also used as a way of communicating events and actions without taking or placing blame.

Although active voice is stronger, there are some situations where passive voice is the better choice. Before we can choose when to use active voice and passive voice, we need to understand the difference between the two.

  • Passive Voice Defined
  • Passive voice is more than using "to be" (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) verbs.
  • Passive construction occurs when the object of an action is made into the subject of a sentence.
    • In the active voice, the subject of a verb acts.
      Example: Mark stole the bike.
    • In passive voice, the subject is acted upon.
      Example: The bike was stolen by Mark.
  • When Is Passive Voice Useful?
  • When it’s irrelevant who performed the action or your readers don’t need to know who is responsible for the action.
    Example: John had been left on the steps of the orphanage fifteen years ago.
  • When you don’t want to acknowledge responsibility.
    Example: The kitchen had been destroyed.
  • To emphasize an object.
    Example: The red car (not the blue one) was hit by the snowplow.
  • To de-emphasize an unknown subject or actor.
    Example: Two dozen cars have been broken into this week.
  • For more formal writing in the third person.
    Example: It is suggested that …
  • How Is Passive Construction Identified?
  • Look for parts of the verb "to be" used with another verb; however, keep in mind that the use of "to be" verbs doesn’t always mean passive voice.
  • Look for the word by, which is often an indicator of passive voice.
    Example: The action was performed by the children.
  • Find the verb and ask, "Who or what performed the action?" If the person or thing performing the action is the subject, the sentence is active.
  • Evaluate If Passive Voice Should Be Used
  • Does it matter who is responsible for the action?
  • Is the subject/actor indicated? Should the subject/actor be indicated?
  • Do you want to emphasize the object or de-emphasize the subject?
  • Would your reader ask for clarification because of an issue related to the use of passive voice?
  • When Passive Voice Should Be Avoided
  • Active verbs create a sense of action and purpose. Active voice is more lively and dynamic and does a better job of moving your story along. Unless a situation clearly calls for a passive verb, it is suggested that you use active verbs.

5 Comments

  1. Joselyn Moreno
    October 3, 2015

    Leave a Reply

    very interesting =)

  2. DeeJay
    October 4, 2015

    Leave a Reply

    guilty of this on occasion

  3. Sarah | I Heart Frugal
    February 2, 2017

    Leave a Reply

    Good read and reminder!! I use passive voice sometimes!!

  1. Passive Voice: Myths and Facts - XterraWeb | wr... - […] Passive Voice. Myths & Facts. What is passive voice? Identify passive voice & know when to use it. Passive…
  2. Understanding Passive and Active Verbs - XterraWeb - […] To learn more about passive voice, check out this article: Passive Voice: Myth vs. Fact […]

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