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August 06, 2021

What is the Passive Voice?

Did your instructor return your paper with “Passive Voice!” scrawled in the margin? It’s a common complaint when it comes to students’ writing—but is it wrong?

Passive voice is when the object of an action is the subject of the sentence. A simple concept that is a favorite professorial nit to pick. Let’s take a look at what it means to use the passive voice, how to identify passive voice in your writing, and understand when to use the passive voice.

Teenaged girl studying at home.

Is the Passive Voice a Mistake?

English is a living language; so-called grammar rules shift over time as colloquial and professional speech changes. Does this mean that the passive voice is no longer the grammar mistake your instructor would have you believe it is?

Not quite.

Technically, passive voice is neither a grammar issue nor a mistake. In fact, passive voice use has only been a composition peccadillo since famous grammarians Strunk and White deemed it so in the 1950s. The enduring popularity of the passive voice being a grammar transgression aligns with the pair’s The Elements of Style continuing to be assigned to composition courses.

There are appropriate and inappropriate times to use passive voice; it is not a writing wrong to use it at all. Whether or not to use passive voice is most often an issue of style and clarity, not grammatical correctness.

Examples of Passive Voice vs. Active Voice

Passive voice is found anywhere words appear. Here are examples of the passive voice—and what their active voice counterparts might be:

  • “The mouse was chased by the cat” vs. “The cat chased the mouse.”
  • “You are loved” vs. “I love you.”
  • “Mistakes were made” vs. “Someone made mistakes.”
  • “Made in America” vs. “Americans made this.”

The first two examples show how active voice can be the best choice for clarity; the second two offer examples of the passive voice that read (and sound) better than the active voice alternative. Again, clarity and style are the key considerations when choosing whether or not to change passive voice.

When to Use the Passive Voice

There are times when using the passive voice is more appropriate than using active voice:

  • When the action and/or object of the action deserve or require emphasis, e.g., “The book was written by the well-known author.”
  • When the actor is unknown or irrelevant, e.g., “The book was written in 1930.”

Whether or not you can remember what the passive voice is and when to use it, help is closer than you think. Many writing applications, including Microsoft Word, include built-in grammar checkers that will flag uses of passive voice—just don’t assume that that means it’s an inappropriate usage. For more help across applications, consider adding a grammar checker like Microsoft Editor to your workflows.

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