What Is Passive Voice in Writing? The Lowdown for Creators

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Julia McCoy

Creator and Co-founder

what is passive voice in writing

Passive voice is a grammatical construction that can subtly shift the focus of a sentence, often resulting in less direct and engaging prose.

In this blog post, we’ll explore what is passive voice in writing, how to identify it, when it’s appropriate to use (and when it’s not), and most importantly, how to transform passive voice usage into more dynamic, active sentences.

Whether you’re a seasoned writer or just starting out, mastering how to change passive voice to active voice will undoubtedly elevate the quality of your work.

Let’s talk about what is passive voice in writing and discover the secrets to written works that pack a punch!

Table Of Contents:

What Is Passive Voice in Writing?

In English grammar, the passive voice is a type of sentence or clause in which the subject receives the action of the verb. Contrast this with the active voice, where the subject performs the action expressed by the verb.

You can be sure a sentence is passive if it uses any form of the verb “to be” followed by a past participle.

For example:

  • The cake was baked by my grandmother.
  • The novel was written by an unknown author.

Another indicator of passive voice is the use of the past tense of “is” or “are” as you can see below:

  • The package was delivered by FedEx.
  • The decision was made by the committee.
  • Mistakes were made.

In each of these sentences, the subject of the sentence (package, decision, mistakes) is the receiver of the action rather than doing the action itself.

One of the flaws of AI in generating content is the tendency to overuse passive voice. This is where my human writing skills stand out.

Restructuring AI-generated content into human-friendly text is my forte. I take robotic paragraphs and breathe life into them, ensuring a lively, active voice that captures the reader’s attention. When I’m done editing, the text reads as if it were written by a person, not a machine.

Using our previous examples, here’s how you can change those passive constructions into the active voice:

  • FedEx delivered the package.
  • The committee made the decision.
  • We made mistakes.

The active voice makes a world of difference, doesn’t it?

When the subject takes charge and performs the action, sentences become more straightforward, concise, and easier to digest. FedEx delivers, the committee decides, and we make mistakes – it’s that simple.

In most cases, writing in an active voice will make your sentences clearer and more engaging for the reader. That’s why it’s generally recommended to avoid passive voice when possible.

But are there times when passive voice is actually the better choice? Let’s look at some of those situations next.

When to Use Passive Voice

I know, I just spent all that time telling you to avoid passive voice – and now I’m saying there are times when you should use it?

I promise I’m not trying to confuse you.

The truth is, while active voice is preferred in most cases, there are situations where passive voice does sound better.

Scientific Writing and Lab Reports

If you’ve ever written a lab report, you know that passive voice is pretty much the standard.

Why? Because in scientific writing, the focus is on the experiment and the results, not on the researcher.

For example, instead of writing “I mixed the chemicals,” you would write “The chemicals were mixed.”

This emphasizes the chemicals and the mixing process, rather than you as the person doing the mixing.

Scientific writing often uses passive voice to create an objective, impersonal tone and to emphasize the experimental process and results.

what is passive voice in writing

Unknown Subjects

Passive voice can also be useful when the person or thing doing the action is unknown or unimportant.

For example:

  • My car was stolen.
  • The store was robbed last night.

In these cases, we don’t know who stole the car or robbed the store, so it makes sense to use passive voice.

Emphasizing the Action or Object

Sometimes you might want to emphasize the action being performed or the object receiving the action, rather than the subject doing the action. In these cases, passive voice can be effective.

For example:

  • The suspect was arrested by police.
  • The bill was passed by Congress.

Here, the focus is on the suspect being arrested and the bill being passed, not on the police or Congress performing those actions.

So while active voice is generally preferred, there are situations where passive voice is the better choice. The key is to use it intentionally and sparingly.

How to Identify Passive Voice

Okay, so now you know what passive voice is and when to use it. But how can you tell if a sentence is written in passive voice?

It’s not always immediately obvious, especially if you’re not used to looking for it.

Here are a few tips and tricks for spotting passive voice in writing.

Identify the Verb Phrase

The first step in identifying passive voice is to locate the verb phrase in the sentence.

Remember, passive voice always involves a form of the verb “to be” plus a past participle. So look for phrases like “was taken,” “is being built,” “have been called,” etc.

  • The project was completed on time.
  • Complaints were made by several customers.

The bold portions are the verb phrases, and they follow the pattern of “to be” verb + past participle, indicating passive voice.

Find the Sentence Subject

In an active voice sentence, the subject typically comes before the verb and is doing the action. In passive voice, the subject either comes after the verb or is missing entirely.

  • Active: The dog chased the ball.
  • Passive: The ball was chased by the dog.

In the active sentence, “the dog” is the subject and comes before the verb “chased.”

In the passive sentence, “the dog” is the subject and comes after the verb phrase “was chased.”

Recognize the Receiver’s Position

In a passive voice sentence, the receiver of the action often moves into the subject position at the beginning of the sentence.

  • Active: The cat ate the mouse.
  • Passive: The mouse was eaten by the cat.

In the passive version, “the mouse” (the receiver) has moved into the subject position at the front of the sentence, while “the cat” (doer of the action) has been moved to the end.

By keeping an eye out for these telltale signs – the verb phrase structure, the placement of the subject, and the position of the receiver – you can start to recognize passive voice more easily in your writing.

Tips for Avoiding Passive Voice in Writing

We’ve covered what passive voice is, when to use it, and how to identify it. But what if you want to avoid using passive voice in your writing altogether? Or what if you’ve written a draft and realized it’s chock-full of passive sentences that need fixing?

I’ve got some tips to help you banish passive voice from your writing for good (or at least use it more sparingly).

Use Action Verbs

One of the easiest ways to avoid passive voice is to use active, dynamic verbs whenever possible.

Instead of relying on forms of “to be” plus a past participle, choose verbs that show the subject taking action.

For example:

  • Passive: The meeting was led by the chairperson.
  • Active: The chairperson led the meeting.

The active version is more concise and easy to understand. It puts the focus on the person doing the action (the chairperson) rather than the thing being acted upon (the meeting).

Rearrange Sentence Structure

Sometimes all it takes to change a passive voice sentence into an active voice is a little rearranging.

Move the subject to the beginning of the sentence and make it perform the action.

For example:

  • Passive: The cake was baked by my mother.
  • Active: My mother baked the cake.

The active version packs a punch, doesn’t it? Just a tiny tweak, but what a world of difference in readability.

Consider First-Person Active Voice

Sometimes, using the first person (I or we) can help you avoid passive voice and make your writing more engaging. This is especially true in casual or personal writing like blog posts or narratives.

For example:

  • Passive: The data was analyzed and a conclusion was reached.
  • Active: I analyzed the data and reached a conclusion.

The first-person active voice puts the writer front and center, making the writing feel more immediate and personal.

Of course, this won’t be appropriate for every context – you probably wouldn’t want to use the first person in a formal research paper. But it can be a great way to write in the right situation.

Tools and Resources for Identifying and Fixing Passive Voice

Even with all these tips and tricks, identifying and correcting passive voice in your writing can still be a challenge. Trust me, I’ve been there. It’s easy to fall into passive voice habits without even realizing it.

Luckily, there are some great tools and resources to help you spot and fix passive voice in your writing. Here are a few of my favorites:

Online Grammar Checkers

Want to clean up your writing and avoid the passive voice trap? Check out these handy online tools that’ll spot those sneaky instances in a snap.

These tools will scan your writing and flag passive voice sentences for you. Some of them even offer suggestions for how to rephrase the sentence in active voice.

Of course, no grammar checker is perfect, and they can sometimes flag false positives. But they’re a great starting point for identifying grammatical errors and passive voice issues in your writing.

University Writing Centers

If you’re a student, you have access to a valuable resource right on campus – the writing center. Take advantage of their one-on-one consultations where an experienced tutor will review your drafts, help you identify areas for improvement, and provide guidance on eliminating passive voice.

Some writing centers also offer workshops or handouts specifically on active and passive voice. Check your university’s writing center website to see what resources they offer.

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)

The Purdue Online Writing Lab, or Purdue OWL, is a fantastic free resource for writers at all levels. They have an extensive collection of handouts and exercises on grammar and mechanics, including several on active and passive voice.

Some specific resources to check out:

With these tools in your arsenal, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle passive voice head-on and write clear, engaging sentences that pack a punch.

Ditch The Passive Voice for More Engaging Content

So, what is passive voice in writing? It’s a way of structuring sentences that emphasizes the action rather than the doer. While it has its place in certain contexts, like scientific writing or when the subject is unknown, it can make your writing feel dull and lifeless.

Ready to supercharge your writing? It’s time to bid farewell to the passive voice and embrace the power of active verbs and clear subjects. With this simple shift, you’ll create content that captures attention and refuses to let go.

It’s time to build your blog empire.

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