Active and Passive Voice

Few people understand the difference between active and passive voice. Of course, professional writers and students of creative writing do. You might too.  If you do, you are one of the lucky few. If you do not understand what is meant by active and passive voice, then this article is for you.

Even when people have learned the importance of active voice, they still fail to use it as often as needed. I have worked with engineers, accountants, managers, and technical writers who have attended well-run business writing courses, who still use too much passive voice. While collaborating on a daily basis with brilliant people preparing important reports, marketing documents, and press releases, I see communications compromised by passive voice sentences that suffocate their message.  For some reason, people just do not see how poorly their sentences read.

This is not to say that all passive voice sentences are bad—far from it. In some instances (such as this sentence), passive voice is preferred. Nevertheless, most business writing suffers from too much passive voice.

What is Active Voice?

In sentences using active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb. In contrast, with passive voice, the subject is acted upon by the verb. Stated another way, active voice makes the subject the agent, while with passive voice, the subject is consigned to be the receiver of action. For example:

  • Active voice
    The chef prepared our dinner.
  • Passive voice
    Our dinner was prepared by the chef.

In the 1st sentence with active voice, the chef (the subject of the sentence) performs the action of preparing dinner. While in the 2nd sentence with passive voice, the dinner receives the action.  The doer of the action (if included) is appended in a prepositional phrase usually using the proposition by.

Passive voice generally is recognized by looking for auxiliary forms of the to be verb followed by the past participle of a verb. Auxiliary forms of to be include is, are, was, were, will be, has been, have been, etc. A past participle is the verb form used to form perfect and passive tenses. Regular past participles are formed by adding the ending –ed to English verbs. Irregular past participles include words such as: bought, caught, fought, thought, meant, went, eaten, forgotten, given, written, known, made, and said. You can find a full list of English irregular verbs and their past participles on Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_irregular_verbs.

The following sentence pairs show active and passive voice with some of the many verb tenses. Note the flow of the action—from the subject with active voice, and to the subject with passive voice.

  • Present tense
  • Active voice
    The doctor recommends a better method.
  • Passive voice
    A better method is recommended.
  • Past tense
  • Active voice
    The doctor recommended a better method.
  • Passive
    A better method was recommended.

     

  • Future tense
  • Active voice
    The doctor will recommend a better method.
  • Passive voice
    A better method will be recommended.

     

  • Present perfect tense
  • Active voice
    The doctor has recommended a better method.
  • Passive voice
    A better method has been recommended.
  • Past perfect tense (also called pluperfect)
  • Active voice
    The doctor had recommended a better method.
  • Passive voice
    A better method had been recommended.

What is the Problem with Passive Voice?

In the examples just considered, the passive voice sentences fail to tell us who recommended the better method. Was it the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, or some other knave? Of course, this can be corrected by adding a prepositional phrase, such as “by the nuclear physicist” or “by the English teacher”—whoever made the recommendation. But, this requires a prepositional phrase, typically appended after the verb.

Generally, it requires more mental energy to understand passive voice sentences. This occurs, because the mind needs to hold the mental concepts represented by the sentence elements (i.e., subject, verb, object, prepositional phrases, etc.) in memory and assemble them to yield meaning. This becomes more taxing as passive voice sentences grow longer. For instance, consider the sentence:

  • It is anticipated that the company will be extended further credit after approval is given when the company’s financial records are reviewed and it is determined if sufficient information was provided.

This sentence uses 31 words, and all the verbs are in passive voice.  The sentence requires strong mental concentration to be understood.

Here is a rewrite with all verbs in active voice:

  • The company anticipates the bank will extend further credit after the loan officer reviews the company’s financial records and determines if they provide sufficient information.

This shortens the sentence to 25 words.  And, the arrangement of the ideas makes the sentence easier to understand.

Here are more examples:

  • Passive voice
    If it is desired, a brief summary of the principles of the test method may be given.
  • Active voice
    If you desire it, we will summarize the principles underlying the test method.
  • Passive voice
    If the problem could not be solved, it probably was caused by storing the repair part improperly or the wrong tool was used to install it.
  • Active voice
    If you could not solve the problem, the warehouse probably stored the repair part improperly or you used the wrong tool to install it.

Even short sentences benefit from transforming passive voice into active voice, although the degree of improvement is small. For example:

  • Passive voice
    Results of the three experiments are shown in figure 1.
  • Active voice
    Figure 1 shows the results of the three experiments.

So, in general, active voice requires fewer words, is faster to read, and improves understanding.

If the Passive Voice Is So Bad, Why Do People Use It So Often?

Using passive voice is just a habit. Unfortunately, it seems to be an easy habit to make and a hard habit to break.

I believe we fall into the routine when we are composing. When we start drafting a document—often struggling to know what to say and then wrestling to convert our fleeting ideas into words—the sentences come out as passive voice. Why this happens, I am not sure.

I do know that if you are aware of the problem, want to remedy it, and work to revise awkward passive voice sentences, you can communicate better using active voice.

Active voice will help your readers read your material quicker and understand it better.

How Do You Spot Passive Voice?

To identify passive voice, follow these steps:

  1. Find a form of the to be verb
  2. Determine if the to be verb is followed by a past participle
  3. Add the phrase “by the Passive Voice Monster” after the past participle and decide if the sentence makes sense

If a phrase passes this test, it is passive voice.

When we apply the test to the sentence “The application was
posted,” we:

  1. And a form of the to be verb, was
  2. Find a past participle, posted
  3. See that the sentence is coherent when we add the phrase “by the Passive Voice Monster”

Thus, the sentence is passive voice.

I am in debt to Brady Sullivan for the phrase “the Passive Voice Monster.” Variations of the 3rd step include adding any of the following phrases:

  • “by John”
  • “by Mary”
  • “by zombies”

The reason that both the 2nd and 3rd steps are needed is not all sentences that use the to be verb are passive voice. Consider the sentence:

  • Some are good.

Here, the verb are serves as a linking verb. It links the attribute “good” to the subject “some.” The sentence is in active voice.

There is another pitfall. Sometimes an adjective that looks like a past participle will follow the to be verb, such as:

  • Priscilla was dedicated.

In this sentence, “dedicated” is used as an adjective, not as a past participle. Therefore, the sentence is in active voice.

Here are more examples that PASS all three tests and thus are passive voice:

  • The book was purchased [by the Passive Voice Monster].
  • The cat was chased [by the Passive Voice Monster].
  • The experiment was performed many times [by the Passive Voice Monster].

On the other hand, here are active voice sentences, where the addition of “by the Passive Voice Monster” FAILS to yield an intelligible sentence:

  •  The flower petals are variegated [by the Passive Voice Monster].
  •  Priscilla is dedicated [by the Passive Voice Monster].

The test indicates the sentences are not passive, because the words variegated and dedicated are adjectives, not past participles.

Do All Passive Voice Sentences Use the “To Be” Verb?

No. Although most passive voice sentences use the to be verb, the verb get also can form the passive voice. For example:

  • The boy got hit.
  • If he should get promoted, he’ll have to move.

Is Software Available to Identify Passive Voice?

Yes. Microsoft Word and online tools, such as Grammarly, recognize passive voice.

To activate this checking feature in older versions of Microsoft Word, go to: File / Options / Proofing / When correcting spelling and grammar in Word / Check grammar with spelling AND Writing Style / Grammar & Style / Settings / Style / Passive sentences.  For newer versions of Word use: File / Options / Proofing / When correcting spelling and grammar in Word / Settings / Grammar & Refinements / Clarity and Conciseness / Passive voice.

If you want to see the portion of your sentences that are in passive voice, activate readability statistics by going to: File / Options / Proofing / When correcting spelling and grammar in Word / Show readability statistics.

(Running the readability statistics test on this article shows that 18% of the sentences reflect passive voice.)

Use the style prompts as suggestions—not as absolute commands. The software will help you spot instances of passive voice. You then can decide if you want to keep them as they are or transform them into active voice.

How Do You Change Passive Voice into Active Voice?

To change passive voice to active voice:

  1. Identify the new subject, usually by selecting the object (actual, implied, or newly furnished), and move it to the position of subject of the sentence
  2. Move the old subject to the position of object
  3. Remove the to be verb
  4. Change the past participle into an active voice verb

Here is an example of passive voice sentence and its transformation into active voice:

  • The fence often is jumped by the dog.
  1. Move “the dog” to the beginning of the sentence, and make it the subject
  2. Move “the fence” to the end of the sentence, and make it the object
  3. Remove the to be verb “is”
  4. Change the past participle “jumped” to the appropriate active voice verb, which in this case is the present tense “jumps”

After this surgery, the sentence becomes:

  • The dog often jumps the fence.

When Is It Better to Use Passive Voice?

There are times when you will want to use passive voice. One instance is when the doer is unknown, irrelevant, or inconsequential or when you want to be vague about responsibility. Such as:

  • The key was lost.

The person who lost the key is unidentified, unimportant, or shirking blame. Besides ignoring or hiding who lost the key, passive voice emphasizes the state of the key being lost. This occurs because the first and the last phrase or words in a sentence receive emphasis. In this case, the subject (“key”) and last word (“lost”) are emphasized.

Another reason to use passive voice is to control focus. The strongest focus of most sentences is on the subject. With this in mind, sometimes to control focus, you will create passive voice sentences like:

  • I was promoted.

This focuses attention on the speaker (“I”).

The alternative sentence “The company promoted me” focuses on the company.

With regard to controlling focus, I have heard it argued that passive voice sentences (such as “The cat was chased by the dog”) are better than their active voice complements (such as “The dog chased the cat”) when the reader wants to emphasize the cat. However, a superior sentence is “The cat fled from the dog.” This last sentence focuses on the cat and still uses active voice.

Another use for passive voice is to state a general truth. For example:

  • Honesty is regarded as the best policy.
  • Shakespeare is recognized as the greatest English playwright.

Sometimes, nothing is better than passive voice. For example, if you wanted to progressively defer information in a series of phrases or sentences that culminate in revealing a key piece of information, you could create a sentence like the following:

  • John was told by his coworker, who was informed by the department secretary, who had been instructed by the manager that the company was now bankrupt.

The verbs are in passive voice. Here is an alternative in active voice:

  • The manager instructed the department secretary, who informed a worker, who told John that the company was now bankrupt.

Assuming the writer wants to focus on John, the passive sentence is better, because it makes John the subject. As the reader progresses through the sentence, the chain of events moves backward from John to a coworker, to the secretary, to the manager. It is clear what the manager said. On the other hand, the active voice sentence moves forward in time with the manager first instructing the secretary, the secretary next informing the coworker, and the coworker finally telling John that the company was bankrupt. It is less clear what the manager said. We know that the coworker told John that the company is bankrupt, but is this exactly what the manager said?

Here are more notable examples of using passive voice effectively.

William Tyndale, the father of modern English, who predominately used active voice in his translation of the New Testament, still used passive voice to powerful effect. This passage from Isaiah quoted by Luke (3:5-6) describes the mission of John the Baptist:

  • Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be brought low.
    And crooked things shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways shall be made smooth.
    And all flesh shall see the savior [which was] sent of God.

This type of construction places the focus on the subject of each sentence, i.e. on the valley, mountain and hill, crooked things, rough ways, and all flesh. Emphasis also falls on the last word of each passage: filled, brought low, made straight, made smooth, and God. Ending the passage with the word God places even more emphasis on deity. (Note that the words which was in brackets are my inference.)

The US Declaration of Independence also makes good use of passive voice:

  • We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…

Should All Technical Writing Be in Passive Voice?

Some instructors and some technical style guides recommend the use of passive voice for technical and scientific writing. While there is a place for eliminating the first person in technical writing, it is still possible to use active voice, and with few exceptions, active voice will improve technical writing. For example:

  • Passive voice
    Increased yield was indicated.
  • Active voice
    The experiments indicated increased yield.
  • Passive voice
    It was observed…
  • Active voice
    The tests illustrated…

Videos

The following short video pokes fun at passive voice.

The following video runs for 13 minutes, but moves quickly. It is a lot of fun. Brady Sullivan shows how to kill the Passive Voice Monster—or at least confine him to his proper place.

The following video by the Writing Center at Texas A&M University briefly summarizes active and passive voice.

In the following three videos, English instructors Adam and Emma provide detailed discussions of active and passive voice.

Conclusion

Most writing in business and education suffers from too much passive voice. Passive voice is not wrong, but you can make your writing stronger by using active voice as much as possible. 

Spot passive voice by looking for a to be verb followed by a past participle and applying the “by the Passive Voice Monster” test.

Call to Action

Adjust your settings on Microsoft Word to flag passive voice, or try an online grammar-checking tool. Check to see how you are doing. How often do you use passive voice? In some instances, could you replace passive voice with active voice?

Further Reading

“English passive voice,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_passive_voice, accessed 3 Jan 2020.

 “Passive Voice: When to Use It and When to Avoid It,” University of Toronto, Tim Corson and Rebecca Smollett, University College Writing Centre, https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/revising/passive-voice/, accessed 3 Jan 2020.

“Passive Voice,” EnglishClub.com, https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/passive-voice.htm, accessed 3 Jan 2020.

“Passive Voice,” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Writing Center, https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/passive-voice/, 3 Jan 2020.

“Active Versus,” Purdue University, Online Writing Lab (OWL), https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/active_and_passive_voice/active_versus_passive_voice.html, 3 Jan 2020.

Credits

William Tyndale, New Testament (1534 edition), Luke 3:5-6, modern spelling and punctuation.

“Mr. D. Presents: Mr. Passive Voice,” YouTube video, posted by MrDsClass, 28 Mar 2011, https://youtu.be/yKUNYp_Bc0g.

“Passive Voice: Is It Bad?” YouTube video, posted by Brady Sullivan, 14 May 2018, https://youtu.be/AP7rTIX14Zk.

“Active and Passive Voice,” YouTube video, posted by tamuwritingcenter, 30 Oct 2017, https://youtu.be/AQNvhUrAn7o.

“The Passive: When, why, and how to use it,” YouTube video, posted by English Lessons with Adam – Learn English [engVid], 29 Sep 2012, https://youtu.be/C6pHfjH0Efg.

“English Grammar: The Passive Voice (IELTS TOEFL Writing),” YouTube video, posted by Write to Top, 2 Jan 2019, https://youtu.be/HfKArXZtbXI.

“How to use the Passive Voice 😅 English Grammar Lesson,” YouTube video, posted by mmmEnglish, 23 May 2018, https://youtu.be/nkAyggAM1q4.

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