Have you ever been told by an editor, fellow author, or reader that you overuse the passive voice, or misuse it entirely? It certainly happened to me, early in my writing career. The problem is that most people don’t have a good understanding of what the passive voice is, so sometimes the person giving you this advice is getting it wrong, and other times the advice is good but you don’t really grasp what you’re being told.
So today I’m going to take you into the weeds of English grammar for a few minutes, to demystify the passive voice. Most people, even many writers, strongly dislike grammar, but I promise to make this quick. And who knows? It might make a big difference toward helping you improve your writing.
The quickest way to understand the passive voice is to understand how verbs work. With any verb, there is a subject and an object. The subject is the entity carrying out the action, and the object is the entity being acted upon. For example: “The writer learns about passive voice.” In this sentence, the writer is the subject and passive voice is the object.
In active voice (the opposite of passive voice), the subject generally comes first, followed by the object. Thus, “The writer learns about passive voice” is written in active voice. In English, active voice sentences are usually preferred—which is why you may have been told to avoid writing in the passive voice. The reason is that active voice sentences are clear, concise, and impactful.
Now that we understand what active voice is, what is the passive voice? Pretty simple. In passive voice, the subject and the object are switched around, and oftentimes the subject is left out entirely. For example: “Passive voice was learned about by the writer.” As you can see, the object of the sentence appears first (passive voice), and the subject (the writer) now comes at the end of the sentence. In the passive construction, indeed, you could leave out the subject entirely and still have a complete sentence: “Passive voice was learned about.”
But as you can see, this sentence is far less clear than its active counterpart. It’s highly abstract.
Let’s consider some other passive voice sentences.
“The pizza got eaten.”
“The movie was watched.”
“The exams were being graded.”
The problem is that passive voice leads to ambiguity, which is why it’s usually best to flip a sentence around into active voice. Who was eating the pizza? Who was watching the movie? Who or what was grading the exams? With these sentences, the reader will never know. Because of this ambiguity, these sentences are very difficult for readers to grapple with; the reader doesn’t have enough information to visualize what’s going on.
Passive voice sentences also tend not to land with as much impact, because even when they do state the object the verb, eliminating confusion, they are longer and more circuitously constructed.
So how can you more effectively spot passive voice in your writing? A big tip-off is the use of the verbs “to be” or “to get.” Let’s revisit our earlier examples to spot these clues, and also note some possible active voice counterparts:
“The pizza got eaten.” (Jennifer and her friends ate the pizza.)
“The movie was watched.” (My wife and I watched the movie.)
“The exams were being graded.” (The physics professor graded the exams.)
“Passive voice was learned about by the writer.” (The writer learned about passive voice.)
Passive voice will take the main verb of the sentence and pair it with either “to be” or “to get.” If you memorize this type of sentence construction, you’ll be able to spot the passive voice and make your writing more active.
But beware, not all sentences with “to be” and “to get” are passive. For example, “The student was learning the passive voice” is an active sentence through and through. How can you tell? The subject (the student) precedes the object (passive voice). Understanding the difference may take some practice.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.