Passive Voice: Every Writer’s Nemesis

This post is part of an ongoing series on passive voice. Be on the lookout for upcoming posts by Janelle Davis, who will write about ways to effectively use passive voice, and Kyle Piper, who demonstrates passive voice usage through fiction.

by Janelle Davis

Imagine for a moment that professor whose class you’ve always dreaded, the one with the droning monotone where you fight to remain awake for two whole hours. The content is important, but that voice…that voice makes picking out the key concepts a terrible struggle.

Passive voice is the written version of monotone. The issue isn’t just that it can be boring – it’s that it makes retaining information more difficult for the reader or listener. The more active and engaged we are, the more likely we are to remember details, which is just as true for reading as it is for listening.

So what is passive voice? In any complete sentence, you should be able to find a subject, or actor; a verb, or action; and an object, something or someone that is acted upon, and in English they usually come in that order: subject-verb-object. A sentence in passive voice, however, puts the object first, moving the emphasis away from the actor and onto the person or thing passively receiving the action. Sometimes the subject even disappears entirely and we have an object getting kicked around with no indication of who is even on the field.

For example, “I was elected” is passive, as is “The book was read by me.” In the first sentence, we don’t even know who did the electing. In the second, the emphasis is on a book instead of the person doing the reading and while there are plenty of interesting books out there, ultimately they are all dependent on the actions of people if they want to accomplish anything.

A quick and dirty way to tell if you are using passive voice is to look for the word “was” followed by a past tense verb – was elected, was read, was followed, was bitten, and so on. If you see a sentence that goes “[Noun A] was [verb]ed by [Noun B],” chances are good that that’s a sentence in passive voice and the linguistic equivalent of a droning monotone. A surer way to check for passive voice is to look at a questionable sentence and isolate the subject and the object – if the object comes first, it’s probably passive.

Luckily, passive voice is easy to fix. All you have to do is swap the subject and the object so that your actor comes first. Then instead of Noun A getting verbed by Noun B, you get to see Noun B verbing it up on Noun A. Think of it this way – in a really great boxing match, your attention is on people actively fighting. It’s exciting, it gets the blood pumping, and the audience is totally engaged. In a dismal match, one fighter is getting whaled on by the other, and it quickly grows painful to watch. Passive voice, by putting the focus on an object, is basically focusing the camera on the guy getting beaten, which is kind of depressing.

Don’t depress or bore your readers. Look out for passive voice, get your subjects actively verbing, and watch your papers become much more interesting for people to read!


Next up: when and how to use passive voice to your advantage!


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