Writer’s tip: Avoid passive voice

passive voice

 

It’s an often given writer’s tip, but few tips for writers cause as much confusion as the caution to avoid passive voice. Understanding what passive voice is and why it should be avoided can clear up this confusion.

One of the biggest problems with this tip is that so few people understand what passive voice is. For example, some people think that passive voice means using forms of the verb “be” too often. While this is a writer’s tic that should be avoided, it is not the same thing as passive voice. Passive voice is not that complicated. It is simply a sentence in which the thing or person that is acted upon becomes the subject of the sentence rather than taking its usual position as the object.

If you’re not a grammar expert, that still sounds confusing, so let’s look at some examples.

Here is a sentence in active voice:

Allison hit the car.

“Allison” is the subject of this sentence because she is what drives the action, that of hitting. “The car” is the object because it receives Allison’s action.

Here are two examples of how that sentence looks in passive voice:

The car was hit.
The car was hit by Allison.

Notice how in both cases, the sentence seems less direct and conveys less of a sense of action. The pace of a narrative can seem to slow for a series of passive voice sentences. In some cases, as in the first one, passive voice also does not provide enough information. Who hit the car? Why would this information be withheld from the reader?

In fact, in some cases, the passive voice might be desirable or even necessary. The writer may wish to withhold information from the reader. Other times, it is not clear who or what has done an action:

The vase had been broken.

Arguably, you could write this sentence in active voice, but the lack of information results in writing a sentence that may be unnecessarily portentous when the need is simply to convey a piece of information:

Someone or something had broken the vase.

Here’s another example of a sentence that sounds more natural in the passive instead of active:

The house was built in 1632. (passive)
Someone built the house in 1632. (active)

These are exceptions to the rule however. The majority of the time, you should avoid the passive voice because it tends to be a clumsy grammatical construction that slows down the pace of a sentence.

What are your tips for avoiding passive voice?

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  • Cindy Scott

    This simple explanation was extremely helpful. I’ve also wondered what my document checker means when it warns me about passive voice.

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