We’ve all been there. You’re writing an essay, minding your own business, when suddenly MS Word pops up with the message: “Passive Voice (consider revising).” You turn in that essay, only to have it returned to you, with “Passive Voice” written all over it in red ink. Reading over the passages your instructor has marked, you can’t find anything wrong with them. So what gives?
What Is Passive Voice?
Passive voice plagues most writers – even professionals – at some point. High school and college students are the most susceptible populations, because they are tasked with showing their knowledge off through their writing. Because of the ways in which it twists sentences, passive voice often sounds smarter to the untrained ear, and is therefore more alluring to young students desperate to impress.
How Do I Identify Passive Voice?
To identify passive voice, you must first know how to identify its opposite: active voice. Active voice looks like this:
The boy threw the ball.
It hit the man.
He yelled at the boy.
Normal, ordinary sentences, am I right? Each one has a subject, verb, and direct object. Now, let’s look at the same scenario in passive voice:
The ball was thrown by the boy.
The man was hit by it.
The boy was yelled at by the man.
wHY iS pASSIVE vOICE pROBLEMATIC?
In grammatical terms, passive voice makes a subject out of that which active voice considers a direct object. Subjects in passive voice aren’t doing anything; all the action in the sentence is done to them. As a result, sentences become listless and limp.
Let’s look at the examples above from a practical aspect. I just added seven extra syllables to three sentences, and they didn’t even help make my meaning clearer. All I did was invert the sentences to make my job as a writer more difficult.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with using passive voice. The sentences above are grammatically intact, but English prefers the use of active voice in almost every instance. Using active voice gives your writing authority and engages your readers.
How to Avoid Passive Voice
So now, knowing all of this, how do we avoid using passive voice in our writing? As I said before, the first step is to aggressively pursue the use of active voice. With each sentence, ask yourself: is the subject acting or being acted upon?
Sometimes there is no better option than to use passive voice, particularly if your sentence does not include an actor. Consider these sentences:
The die was cast.
John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960.
The celebrity was mocked.
The examples above could be rewritten in any number of ways to remove the passive voice, but any revisions would require the addition of extra – and probably unnecessary – words.
We’ll talk more about when to use passive voice in a later article. For now, avoid it as much as possible and ask for help if you need any.
What gives you trouble when you try to write? Let me know in the comments!