What’s the most common piece of writing advice? Don’t use passive voice must be close to the top, if not the top. You’ll even hear some people claim it’s a grammatical error.
Yes, passive voice can lead to weak writing. It’s a good idea to avoid it where possible. However, that doesn’t mean it’s grammatically incorrect or doesn’t have a place.
Were you even taught grammar?
Okay, hands up if your English grammar education was woefully non-existent. The odds are pretty good that if you’re a native English speaker who was born sometime after the mid-60s or so you probably received little to no grammar education at school.
I’m not exactly sure when grammar instruction fell out of favour, but I certainly didn’t receive very much in my school years in the 80s beyond learning the basics of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
What is the passive voice?
The passive voice is a grammatical “voice”. The noun or noun phrase that would be the object of a corresponding active sentence (such as “Our troops defeated the enemy”) appears as the subject of a sentence or clause in the passive voice (“The enemy was defeated by our troops”).
— “English passive voice”, Wikipedia
The technical definition from Wikipedia doesn’t exactly help out a whole lot here if your grammar instruction was as limited as mine. In a nutshell, the subject of the sentence isn’t active in the sentence. The big thing to watch for is whether your subject is doing the verb. “I read the book” vs “the book was read by me”.
In the first case, I’m the subject of the sentence, and the verb applies to something I did. In the second example, the book is the subject and didn’t play an active role in anything.
What to watch out for
The big pitfalls I find that lead me to fall into using the passive voice are when I’m dealing with the past tense. Watch out for when you’re using was and were with a verb. That’s the way I’ve used it above. Similarly, this can come up in the present tense. Watch out for variations of “to be” in your sentences; was/were, be, will be, and so on. It’s not always wrong, but it’s a red flag, especially when combined with another verb.
Sometimes we casually drop into using the passive voice. It’s easy to do when you’re writing in a conversational tone. A good grammar checker like Grammarly, ProWritingAid, or others should catch most cases of the passive voice. Don’t overly rely on automatic tools. Learning to spot it on your own will make your writing stronger. For example, in this article, I’m having to deliberately use the passive voice for illustrative purposes. If I just relied on the grammar checker alone, I’d be undoing a lot of my examples.
Why does it exist?
I mentioned in the introduction that it’s a misconception that the passive voice is a grammatical error. The passive voice can, and does, serve a valuable purpose.
Sometimes you want to shift the focus away from the more normal subject and focus on what would generally be the object. For example, “I was taught the passive voice is bad.” Yes, that’s written in the passive voice (note the pitfall “was” usage again). In this case, I’m focusing on myself as the subject of the story. In this particular case, I’m not focusing on who did the teaching (sorry teachers), but instead the lesson that I received (see, I’m still giving you some credit!).
I’d still suggest that this usage is best used sparingly, and make sure you understand why you’re using it. When in doubt, rework the sentence. “I used to think the passive voice is bad” or “ in school, I learned the passive voice was bad” are both methods that still focus on me, not the teachers as well as the lesson that I learned. Or, give your teachers some credit and put them in the sentence. “My teachers taught me the passive voice is bad”. That does shift the focus slightly away from me. If it’s one sentence in a story that I’m the subject of, that’s not a problem. If every sentence in the story has others acting on me, then there’s a more significant structural problem with my lack of agency in the story.
The place where you will come across passive voice all the time is in scientific writing. And here’s the thing, there’s a reason for it, and it’s valid. As I discussed above, the passive voice removes an active subject from the sentence. In science, you often want to do that. Why? Because you’re not writing about your experiences. You’re writing about the data, the experiment, or the properties of something.
Here are some examples:
- “Data was collected utilizing a population survey.” The focus is on the data and how it was collected, not who was doing the collecting. Incidentally, Grammarly isn’t flagging this one for me.
- “When the chemical is mixed with the reagent, the following reaction is observed.” Again, the point is you’re talking about the properties of the chemical. When those two chemicals mix, there will be a reaction. It doesn’t matter who’s doing it, or even if it just happened in nature. That’s why the passive voice is appropriate here.
There’s a big area where you will find the passive voice is used all the time. (Did you catch that one?) Politicians use passive voice all the time. The reason they do it is that it removes an active actor from the sentence.
Why on earth would a politician do that? It removes their own, or somebody else’s blame from the sentence. The classic example of this would be “mistakes were made”. They’re not saying who made those mistakes, and indeed, they didn’t make mistakes. You’d think that mistakes were something that just sprung up from the ground. That’s precisely why they do it. It’s a commonly used deflection tactic.
If you’re ever writing a piece of fiction and want somebody to seem slippery and evasive, make sure to include some passive voice in their dialogue.
Sadly, there’s another case where you will see the passive voice used all the time, and that’s newspaper headlines. Think of how often you see headlines like “woman murdered by ex-boyfriend”. I’ve dropped the word “was” there, and again, Grammarly hasn’t caught this one. However, who was the active person in this sentence? It’s the ex-boyfriend, not the woman. So why are we shifting focus away from him?
You see this kind of lazy headline writing all too frequently, and usually when it pertains to women being the victims of crimes. If you just read the headlines, it would quite easily seem like murders, rapes, and beatings spontaneously happen to women without anybody actively doing them. It’s lazy writing and call it out when you see it. Rewriting the above sentence to “Ex-boyfriend murdered woman” makes the bastard the actor in the sentence. Or, we could rework the whole thing to provide more details on the murder victim than the murderer, but that’s a different can of worms.
Don’t fear the passive voice
I hope I’ve provided a little more detail on what the passive voice is, and how it’s used. The passive voice can be used appropriately. The passive voice shouldn’t be feared by writers. But, your writing is weakened when it’s overused.
I hope you caught all of these last ones!
Andrew Dacey is a writer and storyteller. By day he works as an IT professional, managing a global operations team. Andrew is a geek who’s heavily involved in playing tabletop roleplaying games and tabletop board games. His other hobbies include photography and knitting. He lives in London with his research scientist partner.