Wait – sometimes you’re supposed to use the passive voice?? But didn’t you hear from a style guide or SAT prep book or self-appointed authority on language that the passive voice is bad?
It’s true that many people have objected to the use of the passive voice – but in some situations, using it is the best way to get your point across. Read this post for some simple guidelines on when you should (and shouldn’t) use the passive voice.
What Is the Passive Voice?
Put simply, in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon. Look at these examples.
Mice are eaten by the cat.
Mice are eaten.
In the first sentence, mice is the subject, but the cat is acting upon the mice. In the second, mice is the subject again. The second sentence doesn’t say who is eating the mice, but since something is acting up them (i.e., eating them), and the mice are the subject, this is a passive sentence as well.
In every passive sentence you will see some form of be (or, in informal English, get) followed by a verb. There may or may not then be a phrase beginning with by to tell the reader who or what is performing the action.
Passive voice is not, contrary to popular opinion, any old phrasing you might perceive as weak or as hiding the truth. Sentences like the following are not written in the passive voice. You can tell because the subject is not acted upon and because there is no “be followed by a verb” construction.
There were some problems.
The victim sustained an injury.
A fight ensued.
An attack occurred.
Political divisions led to violence.
These issues have plagued that region for years.
When Should You Use the Passive Voice?
As a caveat, writing is complicated, so you may find yourself wanting to use the passive voice in situations not listed here. This may be appropriate. This post will just provide you with an overview of the most common situations that call for the passive voice.
Often, it makes sense to use the passive voice when you want to emphasize the person or thing that is acted upon.
Active: Builders completed the monument in 1892.
Passive: The monument was completed in 1892.
Unless you’re writing something focused on the builders, the active version draws too much attention to the builders. Everyone knows that builders are the ones who complete monuments. So you don’t need to highlight that unless you have a particular reason to do so.
Active: The storm destroyed the bridge.
Passive: The bridge was destroyed by the storm.
These sentences are both fine, but do you see how the emphasis shifts depending on which voice is used? If you want your reader to focus on the storm, use the active voice. And if you want your reader to focus on the bridge, use the passive.
Active: The trainer was training the circus’s new performer as an acrobat.
Passive: The circus’s new performer was being trained as an acrobat.
That active sentence sounds awkward, doesn’t it? It draws too much attention to the person doing the training, when it would be more reasonable for this sentence to focus on the performer. The active voice also forces the phrase “as an acrobat” to be separated from “training.” Which makes the whole thing kind of confusing.
It also sometimes makes sense to use the passive voice when you don’t know who committed the action.
A bike got stolen on that street.
Somehow, the door had been unlocked.
Sure, you could write something like “Someone stole a bike on that street” – but that doesn’t really add any information, so it’s better to get right to the point.
You’re writing in a scientific genre. Certain documents, like lab reports, are conventionally written in the passive voice.
The porphyrin was added to the water.
Why do people object tot he passive voice?
Some people have pointed out that the passive voice can take the attention away from people doing bad things. For instance, saying “Alex was assaulted by Dylan” emphasizes Alex’s experience rather than Dylan’s responsibility for the situation.
This objection is prominent in the discourse about violence against women and about police violence against African-Americans. If you’re writing about issues of violence, you should be extra careful to make sure you’re sending the messages you want your audience to receive, and in these situations the active voice is usually appropriate.
A more general objection to the passive voice is that it can make a sentence sound awkward, as in the following sentence.
Potential evidence of life on Mars has been found by scientists.*
If you run into this issue, consider whether your sentence needs to be written in the passive voice. In some cases, you might decide that using the passive voice is the best way to emphasize what you want to emphasize. Then, your task is to rewrite the sentence to sound more natural. Check out these revision options:
Potential evidence of life on Mars has been found.
Scientists have been studying Mars for decades. Recently, potential evidence of life on that planet has been found.
In other cases, you might decide you don’t really need the passive voice in a particular sentence. That is when you should switch to the active voice:
Scientists have found potential evidence of life on Mars.
If you’re not sure which way to go, the active voice is probably a better bet in most cases – but if you have reason to use the passive voice, don’t let unfair stigma scare you away. Used correctly, it can actually enhance your writing.