What is Passive Voice? Passive and Active Verbs - When to Use the Passive Voice in Writing

What is the Passive Voice?

Generally, the active voice is preferred over the passive voice in writing. With the active voice, the subject does the action of the sentence. With the passive voice, the subject receives the action, in effect becoming an object of the verb. Using the active voice makes writing more...hmmm, what's the word? Active! Yes, it makes the writing more active, as it comes more alive! And the reader knowing who is completing the action of the sentence is usually important and something the reader does want to know. Still, there are situations in which the use of the passive voice is acceptable and even more appropriate. We'll look at such instances.


Example of Passive Voice

"Inconvenience caused is regretted." Passive voice shifts the blame from who caused it. Active voice would take the blame: "We regret any inconvenience we've caused."
"Inconvenience caused is regretted." Passive voice shifts the blame from who caused it. Active voice would take the blame: "We regret any inconvenience we've caused." | Source

When is Using the Passive Voice Appropriate?

The passive voice can be used to take the focus off the subject and onto the part of the sentence that needs to be emphasized. Sometimes what took place is more important than who made it happen. In other words, the recipient of the action, or the action itself, is sometimes more relevant than the doer of the action in the sentence. When this is the case, the passive voice is preferred.


Example of Passive Voice: "Each student was given a chance to improve his or her grade."

There is no action verb in this sentence. The passive construction of the verb "was given" makes the subject of "each student" a passive recipient of the action.

Example of Active Voice: "The teacher gave every student a chance to improve his or her grade."

The point, though, is that every student got a chance. Using the active voice with "the teacher" puts the focus back on the teacher and how great it is that he or she gave the students a chance, when what we really want to focus on is that they got the chance, regardless of who gave it to them. Of course, if we are wanting to point out the teacher's positive qualities, the active voice would be more appropriate, as we are trying to show how fair that particular teacher is in giving every student a chance.

One commonly heard example of passive voice used by the government perhaps is effective in its attempt to avoid blame by diverting the action from the subject. The obviousness of who is at fault is lessened. For example, haven't you heard political figures say, "Mistakes were made" instead of "I made a mistake" or "We made a mistake"? Use of the passive voice here is a great way to avoid blame and almost say, "I didn't do it!" Try that the next time you mess up.

"I'm sorry, honey. Mistakes were made!"


Quiz: Passive vs. Active Voice

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I hope this hub was helpful! Feel free to take the quiz, and then leave any comments. Also, check out my other grammar hubs, if you'd like.

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Comments 21 comments

RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Wow! I'll say it was helpful and useful! I have forgotten so many of the English rules - and I am rarely ever passive about anything! Lol. Thanks so much! I had to give you funny too because I was already imagining myself using your idea "mistakes were made" next time I burn dinner! Haha!


ktrapp profile image

ktrapp 4 years ago from Illinois

I have often found that when I write something lengthy, I slip into a passive voice. It always sounds so weak and is easy to hear and correct when I read my words out loud. Now, if only politicians listened to themselves perhaps they would realize how weak and ineffective they all sound.


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA Author

Real Housewife--you're funny! Love your comments. I, too, really like the idea of using the "Mistakes were made" comment in regard to my personal life. :-)


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA Author

ktrapp--I can see how reading out loud would help. Funny comment about politicians...so true!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

A very useful Hub, since we are all writers!

Thank you.


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA Author

Glad you think so, Will! Thanks! :-)


htodd profile image

htodd 4 years ago from United States

This is really great ...Nice article


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA Author

Thanks, htodd. Much appreciated!


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA Author

Thanks, htodd. Much appreciated!


Highvoltagewriter profile image

Highvoltagewriter 4 years ago from Savannah GA.

Great hub, it gave a better understanding of the term, Thanks!


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA Author

Glad to hear that, Highvoltagewriter!Thanks so much!


homesteadbound profile image

homesteadbound 4 years ago from Texas

You have hit my nail on the head. This is one area that I really struggle with. Grammar checkers often tell me I have used passive voice but I was at a loss as how to fix it. It was often a matter of rewriting multiple times until I happened upon something it approved of. After reading this wonderful hub, I'll have a better idea how to avoid it and how to fix it. I think I'll try ktrapp's idea of reading out loud. I do it sometimes. Maybe I should do it all the time. Do you have any other hubs addressing active/passive voice?

voted up, useful and interesting.


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA Author

Homesteadbound--glad it was helpful. I often recommend to my students to read aloud; I think it does help. No, I don't have any other hubs addressing active and passive voice. What else do you think would be helpful? Perhaps a hub on how active is much better than passive?? I'm willing to write another one if I know what the needs are. I get some idea for my grammar hubs from the mistakes my students make in the online English Composition class I teach. I'm glad to do more on the passive voice or anything else! Thanks for the comments and votes!


Rhonda_M profile image

Rhonda_M 4 years ago from Toronto, Canada

Oh the dreaded passive voice. It has its place, but many people have the bad habit of over using it under the misguided notion that it gives writing an important sounding tone. It has its place though, if you need to be detached and gentle, deliver bad news, and deflect attention away from the main subject of a sentence.


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA Author

Rhonda--You hit the nail on the head! Your are so right about how people use it and the situations in which it is appropriate to use. Well said. Thanks!


CloudExplorer profile image

CloudExplorer 4 years ago from New York City

I sort of feel like each time I write something quite personal I'm using the active voice in my writing according to your awesome definitions here.

However I like to utilize the passive voice when I'm trying to explain things that aren't of my own doing at all, and as to try to maintain integrity throughout my writings so not to lose my viewers and readers. So I use the passive voice mostly in research papers and articles I choose to write on.

Your hub is sensational at pointing out the difference of the two, and also helping us to learn common practices of them as well, and so I enjoyed and re-learned something that I've once learned in school long ago.

Nicely done! voted up on all levels because of the funny part towards the end that made me laugh a bit. Smooth!

Oh and congrat's on scoring the first job on Elance, I tried but I guess I'll keep trying to score there as well. You are motivating me for sure.


Phil Plasma profile image

Phil Plasma 4 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

In business writing the passive voice is almost never used, however, in spoken language if often is. Great hub, voted up and useful.


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

Politicians know exactly what they are doing when they use the passive voice, don't they?!

However, I know I have to be careful of not using it in my writing--but I still fall into that bad habit.

Besides using it to avoid blame, good counselors (parents, teachers, friends, preachers, therapists) use it to try to get people to think and hearing it sounds nice and polite, so it must be nice and polite to use it, right? When I find it in my writing it sounds so lame--it says nothing--so embarrassing--but I still miss it in my proofing.

This hub is great--not was, but is. :)


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA Author

Cloud--Thanks for the awesome, thorough comments. Glad you enjoyed the review. I'm going to have to check out the part that made you laugh. I've forgotten what I wrote there. :-) Thanks for the congrats. I had tried off and on on Elance and finally got something, however low-paying! Maybe it will help me get some more assignments. You keep trying, too! See you soon!


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA Author

Thanks, Phil Plasma! I appreciate that!


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA Author

LOL, TRalloni, you make some great points. Yes, the passive voice makes things milder but certainly takes away from powerful writing. Passive voice can be appropriate at times. Glad you liked the hub!!

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