The Passive Voice

Passive Voice – the verb ‘to be’

passive voice

Active and Passive Voice in Writing
The choice between using the active or passive voice in writing is a matter of style, not correctness. However, most handbooks recommend using active voice, which they describe as more natural, direct, lively, and succinct. The passive voice is considered wordy and weak (except when used in cases above). Examine the following examples.

  • weak, passive:
    The skater was slammed into the wall by Maria.
    strong, active:
    Maria slammed the skater into the wall.
  • weak, passive:
    The book was enjoyed by me because the events of her childhood were described so well by the author.
    strong, active:
    I enjoyed the book because the author described the events of her childhood so well.

Hints for identifying the Passive Voice

  An active verb may or may not have a direct object, but the passive verb almost never does.
  “It is…That” construction (It is clear that… It is noted…)
  Use of the verbs To Be, Make, or Have (Passive: Your exits should be made quickly. Active: Leave quickly.)
  Endings that turn verbs into abstract nouns: -ion,-ing,-ment:
  • Passive: When application of force is used, the lid will open.
    Active: Apply force to open the lid.

Defining Passive Voice

Passive voice occurs when the subject and object of an action are inverted, so the subject is the recipient of the act instead of its performer. For example:

  • Passive: The man was bitten by the dog.
    Active: The dog bit the man.
  • Passive: I was told by my teacher to come at noon.
    Active: My teacher told me to come at noon.

Note that the word “by” is present in these two examples. A sentence can be passive without the word “by,” but it is always at least implied. For example: “I was given bad directions [by my friend].”

Passive voice always involves a to be verb. To be verbs include am, are, been, being, is, was, were. On the other hand, a sentence can include a to be verb without being passive. For example:

  • “I have been involved in this organization for several years.”
  • “He is leaving in five minutes.”

Achieving Active Writing

Active language comes not just from avoiding passive voice but further requires the use of strong action verbs. In addition to avoiding to be verbs, you should try to replace helping verbs such as have, had, has, do, does, did and other vague verbs like got and get.

  • Before: I had opportunities to develop my skills.
    After: I sought opportunities to develop my skills.
  • Before: I got the promotion through hard work.
    After: I earned the promotion through hard work.
  • Before: She did well in this competitive environment.
    After: She thrived in this competitive environment.
  • Before: My mother didn’t want to show up without a gift.
    After: My mother hesitated to show up without a gift.
  • Note that bulletin boards often feature the passive voice, put there by management officials who don’t want to be identified. “It has been decided that ten people must be laid off etc. etc.” The question is WHO decided.
  • Note also that the passive voice was often used when the author was talking about women. “She was raised in Toronto and was hired by XXX Corporation. Then she was moved to New York etc. etc.” Women were not actors, not agents of things happening. They were passive.

Thankfully, things are changing today.

Can you spot the passive voice I used in explaining the passive voice?  I don’t mean the examples.

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