Those of us whose word-processing software includes a grammar checker have probably encountered the green squiggly line of doom wagging an accusatory finger at a passive verb.
But what is the passive voice, and why is it considered undesirable? (If you learn better by hearing and seeing than by reading, watch our video on this topic.)
In the passive voice, the subject is also the recipient of the verb’s action.
Simply put, when the grammatical subject of a sentence is also the recipient of the action expressed by the verb, the sentence is in the passive voice.
Let’s use these sentences for our discussion:
- The parade was kept orderly by public safety officers.
- The ten-year plan was developed after consultation with the board of trustees.
- Two written reflections by each participant, connecting course content to personal experience, were completed on days two and six of the workshop.
- Frequent meetings are held with customers and stakeholder organizations.
- At the New York conference, insights were gained that will be used to strengthen the company’s marketing strategies.
What is the active voice?
In the first sentence, was kept is the action verb. The subject of the clause is parade. But what makes the sentence passive is that parade is also the direct object. When we ask ourselves, “What was being kept?” the answer is parade.
Parade is both the subject of the clause and also the recipient of the action—the direct object.
In a sentence written in the active voice, the subject is the person or thing performing the action expressed by the verb, and the direct object is the person or thing receiving the action expressed by that verb.
The same sentence, then, written in the active voice instead of the passive voice, would look like this: “Public safety officers kept the parade orderly.”
The subject officers, the ones who did the keeping, is a separate entity from the direct object parade, the recipient of the action verb kept.
Here are two more sets of examples:
- Passive voice: Your assistance with this matter is greatly appreciated.
- Active voice: We greatly appreciate your assistance with this matter.
- Passive voice: A second staff person would also be hired, and an office would be established.
- Active voice: Our agency would hire a second staff person and establish an office.
The passive voice is not ungrammatical.
Good writers recognize that the use of the passive voice is not an error. That is, the passive voice is not, per se, ungrammatical despite what your word processing software might lead you to believe.
Sometimes, in fact, the passive voice can be quite handy. Imagine, for example, that someone in your workplace broke the brand new copier by using the wrong kind of paper. It is much more diplomatic to say “The copier has been broken” than it is to say “Frieda broke the copier.”
Passive verbs and passive sentences can be a liability.
Even though the passive voice can help us avoid pointing a finger at the person (or people or company or agency) responsible for unpleasant actions, that notion itself can become a writing pitfall. Consider these passive-voice sentences, for example:
- Your request has been denied.
- Another candidate was chosen for the position.
- The decision was made to enact only a 3 percent raise for the next fiscal year.
Although the purpose of such sentences may be to hide the identity of the people who performed these actions, we aren’t really fooling our readers. Instead, we are conveying a detached and unconcerned tone, suggesting that we don’t really care about the consequences of those actions. The passive voice may, therefore, actually serve to alienate our readers.
Consider the improved tone of these active-voice revisions:
- We have denied your request.
- The search committee has chosen another candidate to fill the position.
- The board of directors decided to enact only a 3 percent raise for the next fiscal year.
Particularly in the business arena, writers use the passive voice because they falsely assume that it sounds more professional. In truth, it usually sounds stuffy—even pretentious—and creates a barrier between the writer and the reader.
Avoid passive-verb phrases, and use the active voice instead.
Perhaps the most important reason to avoid the passive voice is that passive sentences are often awkward if not downright illogical and ambiguous.
In sentence 2 at the top of this article, for example, the passive voice creates the illogical statement that the plan consulted with the board of trustees. We could more logically write, “The long-range planning committee developed the ten-year plan after consulting with the board of trustees.”
Sentence 3 dimly suggests that “each participant completed two written reflections,” but its convoluted construction requires the reader to make such an assumption, perhaps after reading the statement several times. To be clearer, we should write, “On days two and six of the workshop, each participant completed two written reflections connecting course content to personal experience.”
Sentences 4 and 5 would also be both clearer and more readable in the active voice:
- Company representatives hold frequent meetings with customers and stakeholder organizations.
- At the New York conference, our department leaders gained insights they can use to strengthen the company’s marketing strategies.
One final reason to avoid the passive voice is that it often fails to tell us who performed the action expressed by the verb. Such sentences create mental images with key pieces missing.
For example, someone reading the sentence “The meal will be prepared in the banquet hall” will have a difficult time picturing a meal being prepared by no one in particular.
If we revise the sentence, however, and insert the agent for the action, the reader sees a much clearer, more complete image: “Three chefs from the local culinary school will prepare the meal in the banquet hall.”
Good writers aim for readers to see exactly what they want them to see. The active voice paints a more concrete, vivid picture in the mind of the reader and thus enables the writer to communicate more effectively.
Here’s a short (less than five minutes) video lesson on the passive and active voices, and beneath the video is a quick quiz to test your understanding:
TEST YOURSELF: The following sentences are written in the passive voice. Rewrite them using active-voice verbs. Follow these steps:
(1) Find the action verb. (2) Ask yourself who did that action. (3) Make the agent for the action the subject of the sentence. (4) Make the recipient of the action the direct object of the sentence.
- Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was performed by the university orchestra.
- Quarterly reports will be submitted along with statistics charting sales for each product.
- Three new procedures for assessing product safety have been recommended by the company’s external consultants.
- The report has been carefully reviewed by a team of unbiased individuals who were not part of the original project.
- An attempt was made to ensure that all item types were sampled proportionally.
- The university orchestra performed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. [The action verb in the original is was performed. Who performed? The orchestra. What got performed? Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.]
- Regional sales representatives will submit quarterly reports along with statistics charting sales for each product. [Action verb in the original is will be submitted. Who will submit? We don’t know, so we have to add a subject; here we have added regional sales representatives. What got submitted? The quarterly reports.]
- The company’s external consultants recommended three new procedures for assessing product safety.
- A team of unbiased individuals who were not part of the original project has carefully reviewed the report.
- Researchers made an attempt to ensure that all item types were sampled proportionally.
Copyright 2004 Get It Write. Revised 2019. Video added August 2020.