Writing Tip: Avoid Passive Voice--Usually

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a fantastic English teacher. Mrs. Shirley was a former basketball player with a voice that hinted at Julia Child’s in the very best of ways. She simultaneously held her students to a high standard and lavished us with kindness.

She also had some quirky requirements for term papers. Most formidably, we weren’t allowed to use any form of the verb “to be.” “Am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been” were all off limits.

As challenging as this rule was at first, it taught me to look for and use a wider variety of words.

It also helped me break out of my passive voice habit.

(Although, you can write a passive sentence without “to be” and an active sentence with it.)

When left to our own devices, a lot of us tend toward writing in the passive voice, especially when trying to explain complex ideas. Passive voice isn’t incorrect (see below), but active voice is almost always clearer.

What are passive voice and active voice?

In active voice, you (or whoever) do the thing. In passive voice, the thing is done by you (or whomever).

Clear as mud?

Here’s another example. “My toddler wrecked the living room,” is active. “The living room was wrecked by my toddler,” is passive.

Notice that the subject of the first sentence, “my toddler,” does the action, “wrecked the living room.” The second sentence conveys the same information, but the subject is now “the living room,” which passively receives the action. We don’t find out who did the wrecking until the end of the sentence.

This more-info-at-the-end structure makes the passive voice a little—sometimes a lot—harder to follow. Active voice is more succinct and is thus easier for readers to understand.

But please note, passive voice isn’t wrong.

A passive sentence conveys a different tone than an active one. Sometimes that may be just what your writing needs. Writing coach Ann Kroeker says, “Write tight but add when you must.” She shares examples of how to do so in episode 168 of her podcast.

You can also use passive voice to emphasize an action, such as a research process, rather than the person who did it. Scientific texts often have more instances of passive voice because some writers believe it helps them maintain an objective tone. However, a sentence can be written both objectively and actively, so it's still best to use active voice as much as possible. (Did you notice that sentence used passive voice? :) )

Summary:

  • To spot passive voice, look for a sentence's subject that receives rather than does.

  • Passive voice isn’t evil, but if you can use active voice, do.

Finally, here are two more things Mrs. Shirley made sure I’ll never forget: “Alot” is not a word, and don’t forget the second “O” in sophomore!


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Related Resources

The Hemingway App is a fun way to analyze your writing, including how often you use passive voice. But take the evaluation with a grain of salt. As Ann Kroeker points out in the podcast episode I mentioned above, Hemingway himself doesn’t always win the app’s approval.

Check out this article from Yoast for information about how passive voice can affect search engine optimization (SEO).

As you may have guessed from many of the links above, I’m a big fan of Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty. I always check with her when I run into a sticky grammar issue or need a quick refresher.