On Passive Voice

The advice “avoid passive voice” is not, really what it seems to be. Rather than avoid passive voice completely, you should understand what it is, how it works, and how to create a sentence using passive voice.

Passive voice = was, is, being, or has been + a verb in the past tense.

Passive voice: The ball was kicked.
You can’t tell who “did” the kicking.

Active voice: John kicked the ball.
John “did” the “kicking.” John is the grammatical subject of the sentence.

Some comments:

  • Only verbs that take an object can be used in the passive voice.

The problem with passive voice, especially in academic writing for the humanities is that it’s difficult to tell who did what to whom, which can make the sentence confusing. In general, passive voice in English tends to describe who or what received, or was affected by an action, rather than who or what performed or did the action.

There are times when you might want to use passive voice:

  1. Sometimes the social sciences and sciences use passive voice deliberately because it isn’t clear who or what is responsible for an action, event, or phenomena.
  2. Sometimes passive voice is useful in fiction when you don’t want the reader (or a character) to know who is responsible.
  3. Frequently passive voice is used in corporate writing to hide the person who is responsible for a particular decision, especially for a particular bad decision. Mistakes may have been made.
  4. In some technical writing, especially documentation, passive voice is useful because the event being described lacks a clear person or thing who is doing the action of the verb.

In general, for academic writing, you will want to revise sentences in which you do not explicitly state who is doing what to whom.

For Example:

Twelfth Night was written by Shakespeare. Passive
Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night. Active

Passive Voice Resources: