Your Grade School Teachers Were Right: Avoid Using the Passive Voice — Here’s Why

Your Grade School Teachers Were Right: Avoid Using the Passive Voice — Here’s Why

Even as a full-time freelance writer, I have to admit: I don’t remember much of the grammar lessons I learned in grade school. 

But when writing is your bread and butter (or even just your primary hobby), figuring out the most salient points of usage takes on a new importance — or, at least, feels more important than figuring it out just to pass a pop quiz.

Chances are at least one of your teachers drilled the idea that passive voice is bad into your head. 

But why did they do that? Is it that bad, really? And, with however many years separating you from your classroom experience, do you even know how to identify passive voice in the first place anymore?

Let’s take a quick, pain-and-pop-quiz-free review of this peculiar type of sentence construction.

What is passive voice?

The passive voice is a type of sentence construction wherein the subject and object switch places: rather than the subject acting on the object, the object of the action becomes, itself, the subject.

It sounds complicated, but you’ve definitely seen it used — and more than likely used it yourself without even thinking about it.

One common way the passive voice is employed (and thus an easy red flag to look for when trying to identify it in your own writing) is the use of some form of “to be” verb plus a past participle. For example:

The paper had been written when I was young and inexperienced.

(An active voice version of that idea might read: I wrote the paper when I was young and inexperienced.)

However, not all sentences that use “to be” verbs or past participles are passive! For example, all of the following sentences are in the active voice:

I had been writing all night long, but I wasn’t getting anywhere.

I have to submit my manuscript by tomorrow!

He had gone to his editor more than once about it.

“To be” verbs and participles aside, the most conclusive way to figure out whether or not a sentence is in the passive voice is to identify the subject, verb, and — if there is one — the object of the action. If the object of the action is in the front of the sentence and the subject is at the end, you’ve got yourself an example of passive voice.

Another example:

PASSIVE VOICE: The book was written by my best friend, Elizabeth.

ACTIVE VOICE: My best friend Elizabeth wrote the book.

Why is the passive voice wrong?

As discussed above, the last time you talked about the passive voice was probably in the context of being told, by some well-meaning teacher, that it’s incorrect.

So let’s be totally clear: the passive voice isn’t wrong, exactly. But it’s usually a lot clunkier than an active sentence construction. 

Using the passive voice distances the subject from the action of the sentence, which leads to less clarity and urgency. It can also add unnecessary words to your manuscript, since the passive voice generally requires more auxiliary verbs than the active voice does. You need a lot more space to say The ball had been kicked by me than to say I kicked the ball.

That said, there may be times when you want to employ the passive voice to purposefully draw emphasis to the object of an action — or the fact that the object is, in fact, being treated as an object. 

For instance, Writer Constance Hale argues that Germaine Greer, in writing “The Female Eunuch,” uses the passive voice “ to emphasize that a subject is not a ‘doer’ but a ‘done-to’ over at the New York Times. Here’s Greer’s passage with the passive portion bolded:

The married woman’s significance can only be conferred by the presence of a man at her side, a man upon whom she absolutely depends. In return for renouncing, collaborating, adapting, identifying, she is caressed, desired, handled, influenced.

When in doubt, however — and especially if you’re still working to understand exactly what the passive voice is — it’s usually a good rule of thumb to avoid it.

How to use less passive voice in your writing

Now that we’ve covered how to discern between passive vs. active voice and why the passive voice can be so problematic, you may be wondering how to fix or avoid it in your own writing practice. 

And to be honest, like most things in the writing world — and in the whole world, as a matter of fact — a lot of it comes down to plain old practice. As you continue to write, take time to review your work specifically for instances of passive voice usage and change the sentences to active voice when you see them. Over time, using the active voice will become second nature.

Of course, everyone needs some help along the way. Fortunately, we’ve come across some grammar checker tools that include a passive voice checker amongst their suite of goodies — and although premium versions of those programs cost, many offer a free edition.

Armed with this knowledge of passive voice, go forth and do some writing…as opposed to letting your writing do you!

Photo via Prostock-studio / Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Craft

3 comments

  • Jonas says:

    Now I understand it better. As a non-native English speaker, I often find these differences between active and passive voice difficult to see. Thank you!

  • I love the way this article offers more nuanced advice than a simple “Don’t use passive voice under any circumstances!”

    In fact, it contains an excellent example of an appropriate use of passive voice:

    “One common way the passive voice is employed …”

    The real “subject” of the clause (“the passive voice is employed”) at the level of meaning is not whatever person is employing the passive voice, but the passive voice itself, so it is appropriate for it to be the grammatical subject, too. In fact, that’s how I would advise authors to determine when to use the active voice and when to use the passive voice: The grammatical subject should also be the subject of the intended meaning.

    That’s why passive constructions can kill the immediacy of an action scene. Instead of concentrating on the source of the action, it shifts focus to whatever or whomever is acted upon.

    May both voices be employed appropriately in everything you write!

    (Now, imagine that sentence this way: “May you employ both voices appropriately in everything that is written by you.” Loses some zing, doesn’t it?)

    Trish O’Connor
    Owner, Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services
    http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com

  • Dorve UX says:

    Hi Jamie, I like to use the passive voice because it seems “poetic”, but I understand with your publication the problems that this can cause. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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