What is Passive Voice and How to Avoid It

by | Apr 16, 2022 | Creative Writing

If you’re looking to exponentially improve your writing with minimal effort, then eliminating any use of passive voice is a great way to accomplish this! Just to be clear, passive voice is not a grammatical error, so if you’re using it in your essays or creative writing work, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. However, using passive voice is stylistically a poor choice for the simple fact that it reduces clarity in your writing, and can create a very roundabout way of saying what you actually mean.

In this article, we’ll explore what passive voice is and how to avoid it in your writing.

What is Passive Voice?

Passive voice is a form of passive construction (or passive syntax), which occurs when the subject receives or undergoes an action instead of performing it. Passive voice in English typically uses “to be” verbs such as to be, was, and were. The passive voice can also use other words besides these verbs that indicate being, like become and get

  • I got promoted at work yesterday.  (I’m no longer just an intern; people are finally starting to take me seriously.)
  • John became famous after his first film debuted last year.   (He’s always been passionate about movies, but he didn’t consider acting until recently.)
  • I am loved by my family.  (They couldn’t care less about me, but my dog loves me.)

Passive voice is when a sentence has an object performing the action of the verb instead of using who or which to identify the agent (person or thing) that initiated the action. For example: “The ball was thrown by her.” The passive voice can make sentences unclear and difficult to understand; for this reason, passive voice should be avoided in writing as much as possible.

Why Should You Avoid Using Passive Voice In Writing?

First, passive voice can be ambiguous and confusing because it’s not always clear who or what is performing the action. This lack of clarity can force readers to backtrack to try and understand what you’re trying to say.

Second, passive voice often makes sentences weaker and less concise than those written in the active voice. Using more words is not necessarily a bad thing, but when passive voice could easily be replaced by an active sentence without sacrificing meaning, it’s best to stick with the more direct option.

Third, passive constructions can make your argument less assertive or convincing. When you want to come across as strong and authoritative, using passive voice is not the best way to go about it since it is typically the most roundabout way of saying something.

How Can You Avoid Passive Voice in Your Writing?

There are a few ways to avoid using passive voice in your writing, and they mostly boil down to paying attention to the structure of your sentences. Here are a few tips:

Use Active Verbs

Use an active verb whenever possible. This will help make your sentence more concise and straightforward.  For example:

Passive voice: The lamp was knocked over by a gust of wind.

Active voice: A gust of wind knocked the lamp over.

Use Agentless Passives

If you find yourself using passive voice because you don’t know the name of the agent, try to use an agentless passive instead. This will help make your sentence clearer without sacrificing information. For example:

Passive voice: I was born in 1982 in Los Angeles.

Agentless passive voice: In 1982, I was born in Los Angeles.

Replace To Be Verbs With Action Verbs

When possible, replace to be verbs with action verbs that are more concise and easier to understand. For example:

Passive voice: The milk was tipped over by the little boy.

Active voice: The little boy tipped over the milk.

Be Specific About Who or What Performs the Action

If you can, try to be specific about who or what is performing the action in your sentence. This will help make your writing more clear and concise. For example:

Passive voice: It was decided by the board to make changes in income tax policy.

Active voice: The board voted on making changes in income tax policy.

When is it Okay to Use Passive Voice in Writing?

There are times when passive voice can improve the clarity of your writing. However, passive voice should only be used in certain situations:

When passive voice is necessary to maintain politeness or respect by avoiding a direct reference to an agent with which you don’t want to offend. For example:

Passive Voice: Salmon was served at dinner last night, and it ended up tasting terrible.  

Active Voice: Jane served the salmon for dinner last night, and it ended up tasting terrible. (This would seem disrespectful because it implies that Jane has something to do with the Salmon’s bad taste).

Passive Voice In Dialogue

Sometimes passive voice is the best way to represent dialogue accurately. Most people naturally speak using passive voice sentence structures, so using it in your character’s dialogue is key to making your dialogue realistic. When it comes to writing in the first person, it may also make the most sense to use some passive voice structures to help bring out the personality of the writer. Again, people don’t naturally avoid passive voice in all speech, so it doesn’t make sense if your first-person narrator doesn’t ever use passive voice.

Leveraging Passive Voice Where it Makes Sense

Remember, whether or not you utilize passive voice in your writing comes down to personal stylistic choice. It’s certainly not grammatically incorrect to do so, but it can greatly reduce clarity and the flow of your writing when used excessively. Use your best judgment with passive voice, and try to minimize how much and when it’s used throughout your writing. Pay close attention to how you’re structuring your sentences and use active verbs, agentless passives, and specifics about who or what performs actions in your sentences as much as possible!

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