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Understanding Passive Voice

Updated on February 11, 2015

What's Wrong With Using Passive Voice?

In the example I gave earlier, the basic meaning of the sentence stays intact. Whether you state that the cat caught the bird or you state that the bird was caught by the cat--things are not looking good for little Tweety. Grammatically, there is nothing wrong with using passive voice.

The problem with using passive voice is that it can make the overall feel of your writing drag--especially when you use it too often. Teachers and editors commonly state that using passive voice is "lazy". It can certainly feel that way.

What is Passive Voice Anyway?

According to the English department at the University of North Carolina, passive voice occurs when you make the object of an action the subject of a sentence. This simple example should explain the basics:

Active Voice - The cat caught a bird

Passive Voice - A bird was caught by the cat.

The action word (verb) in this simple sentence is "caught". The object of this action is "a bird". In the first sentence, the subject of the sentence is "the cat" In the second sentence, the subject became "the bird".

The Grammar Corgi Says...


Common Myths About Passive Voice

There may not be any other grammatical topic that has more myths associated with it than passive voice does. Learn more about passive voice and help put an end to these common myths.

  • Passive Voice is Grammatically Incorrect - MYTH - Grammatically speaking, there is nothing wrong with using passive voice.
  • Using the words "to be" automatically means something is written in passive voice. - MYTH - While using "to be" is another crutch that using too often makes your writing weaker, it does not in itself make something passive voice.
  • Writing something in first person avoids passive voice. - MYTH - A simple example of this in action is "I was bitten by the rabid raccoon."
  • Never use passive voice. - MYTH - There are many instances, which I will detail below, where passive voice is actually preferable to active voice.
  • You can count on Microsoft Word or Grammarly to catch passive voice. - MYTH - While these grammar check programs do catch many instances, they are far from perfect and will not always point out your use of passive voice.

How to Identify Passive Voice

Even experienced proofreaders find it hard to spot all instances of passive voice. However, you can find many examples in your writing by looking for the following:

  • A form of the verb "to be" placed in front of another verb - for example is, are, were, was, and has been.
  • Use of the preposition "by"
  • Microsoft Word and Grammarly both check for Passive Voice if you choose the correct options.

Remember, just because you notice a warning sign does not mean that you've actually found something in passive voice. These are just some tips to help you get started.

Mr. Passive Voice

Check Out Passive Voice in "Action"

Using too much passive voice in your writing can lead to it feeling a bit "boring"--since there is no action occurring. This video by "Mr. D" provides a great example of how using passive voice too often can keep you from writing content that pops.


When Should You Use Passive Voice?

While the general consensus is that you should avoid passive voice much of the time. There are certain occasions where it is actually preferable!

If the would-be do-er is unknown or irrelevant, using passive voice often makes sense. Going back to our example of "The cat caught the bird", if we didn't know WHAT caught the bird, using passive voice works better: "The bird got caught by something".

Another instance is if you are emphasizing the object that is acted upon. "A huge, scary bird got caught by a cat." The most important part of this sentence is the bird--so using passive voice makes sense.

An interesting use of passive voice is deflecting blame. This is something politicians and criminals have used in the past. For instance saying "A mistake was made" sounds better than saying "I made a mistake."

There are other reasons you may use passive voice, but these examples can at least give you a starting point.

Want to Learn More?

I hope you've enjoyed learning some "quick and dirty" information on passive voice. If you want to learn more, there's plenty of great information out there! Some of the references I used include:

Drop me a comment and let me know if this guide helps you! I love chatting with my readers.


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    • Gail Meyers profile image

      Gail Meyers 3 years ago from United States

      I blame my persistent use of passive voice on law school and working in the legal field. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it. lol Thanks for the refresher. I am really trying to stop writing in passive voice. Voted up and useful.

    • My Cook Book profile image

      Dil Vil 3 years ago from India

      Good English lesson, thank you for the same. Voted UP and useful.