Writers, publishers, and English teachers have been annoyed by passive voice for years. And yes, I know I just used it. I could have easily rewritten the previous sentence as: “Writers, publishers, and English teachers have been trying to avoid passive voice for years.” The second example clearly reveals the subject of the sentence: writers, publishers, and English teachers. If you instead wanted passive voice to be the subject, you could rephrase the sentence as: “Passive voice has long been the bane of writers, publishers, and English teachers.”
Every idea can be phrased in infinite correct ways, and, in all honesty, passive voice is one of those grammatically correct ways. However, it is rarely preferable and knowing how to identify and correct passive voice misuse is an important skill.
What is Passive Voice?
Passive voice is a sentence structure that places the subject of the sentence after the action it does or completely eliminates the subject.
For example: “The food was eaten by the cat.” The sentence structure makes it seem as if the food is the subject. However, the food isn’t really doing anything. An action is being done to the food. The subject of the sentence is the cat, which is eating the food. The sentence could be rewritten using active voice as: “The cat ate the food.” This is shorter and clearer.
Sometimes, passive voice allows you to eliminate the subject. “The food was eaten” is a valid sentence, but it does not tell the reader who ate the food. This is also passive voice.
The Problem With Passive Voice
When you find passive voice in your writing, you might be inclined to leave it as is. After all, it often seems right—and sometimes it is. Even when it’s not appropriate, there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about passive voice. It’s not even that difficult to read. But, active voice is usually easier.
I think the best way to understand the importance of writing actively is to identify sentences in your writing where you use passive voice. Rewrite the sentence using active voice and then compare the two sentences. Think about which one gets the point across more concisely, conveys the message to the reader, and flows better with the other sentences in that paragraph.
You will often find that passive voice either makes a sentence longer or skips over potentially important information.
Identifying Passive Voice
The hardest part of fixing passive voice is identifying it. Quickly skimming a story you just wrote is unlikely to reveal any examples of passive voice. Knowing some of the defining features of passive voice will make it easier for you to find it in your writing.
A conjugation of to be followed by a past participle verb. For example, “He was attacked by angry children.” Was and attacked together tell you that this is passive voice. “Every day, she is scolded.” You know this is passive voice because of is scolded.
Something done by someone. This typically goes hand-in-hand with the previous example, but sometimes it is easier to notice the word by than something like was taken. It’s a matter of preference. However, it is important to remember that by does not make a sentence passive, nor must a passive sentence contain the word by. Looking for bys can be useful, though, because all passive sentences using the word by can be rewritten actively. “Something done by someone” means the same thing as “Someone did something.” However, if by isn’t used, you may have to add a subject when rephrasing a sentence actively. For instance, “the food was eaten” means “Someone ate the food,” but the subject wasn’t in the original sentence.
Once you have identified the passive voice in your writing, switching to active voice is a matter of identifying the subject of your sentence.
Take, for instance, the following sentence: “A war was declared.” Who declared war? Was it the king, the President, a child, or someone else? Let’s say it was the aliens. Start your sentence with the aliens. Then, write what they did. Put the object of the sentence at the end. The aliens declared a war.
Breaking the Rules
Using active voice is one of the many “rules” of writing that often demand to be broken.
Sometimes, you don’t know who the subject of your sentence is. Yes, “my phone was stolen” can be written as “somebody stole my phone,” but what if you don’t know if the action was done by somebody? What if there are robots or aliens running around stealing phones?
A less extreme example might be “this dress was made for me.” The person who made the dress isn’t important. The dress is. Yes, you could say this dress is for me, but that might not get the point across as well.
Another time you might be more inclined to use passive voice is when you want to emphasize different parts of your sentence. The beginning and end of your sentence make the most impact on your reader, and the middle often doesn’t stick. That’s why you want to start each sentence with something your reader cares about and wants to continue reading for. On the same note, you should end each sentence with something that your reader needs time to think about. Read some examples below.
You could say “Bob set the prisoners free,” which implies that the narrator is discovering for the first time that the prisoners are free. The big surprise here that the reader needs to take in is that the prisoners are free. On the other hand, you could phrase it like: “The prisoners had been freed by Bob.” This would make sense if the narrator is surprised that Bob set the prisoners free, as opposed to someone else. Both of these are valid sentence structures with different connotations, and it would be up to you as a writer to determine which one best suits your story.
In a complex sentence with multiple clauses, the beginning of the sentence is also important. “A war was declared, and people became afraid.” Here, it might be more important to emphasize the war that was declared than the person or people who declared the war. Adding the subject in this sentence would force readers to piece through more information.
Additionally, passive voice is used often in scientific papers because the experiment is more important than the people doing it.
While there are often good reasons to use passive voice, please don’t use passive voice to simply vary your sentence structures or beginnings. You improve sentence fluency by using simple and complex sentences, using unique vocabulary and transition words, and sometimes adding parenthetical statements. Passive voice, on the other hand, should only be used to make a sentence more impactful for your reader, not as a way to vary sentence structure.
As you write your next chapter or story, pay attention to passive voice. If you can’t reword your sentence at that moment, mark that line and come back to it. The important thing is being aware of where and when you use passive voice, so you can begin fixing it.