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University Writing Center



Passive Voice

What is passive voice?

Think about who or what is causing the action in the sentence (this is known as the “agent”). In active voice, the agent is at the start of the sentence; in passive voice, the agent isn’t at the start.

Active:            The dog bit the boy.

Passive:         The boy was bitten by the dog.

How do I spot passive voice?

Besides looking at the placement of the agent in the sentence, here are some more clues for spotting the passive voice:

  • A passive voice construction usually contains a form of “to be” followed by a past participle.

  • “To be” can be in any of these forms: is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being.

  • Past participle is a past form of a verb that usually ends in –ed.

  • With a combination of these two things, the sentence is most likely passive.

For example:

The ball was dropped.

Was= to be                Dropped= past participle

  •  Another clue is the presence of a prepositional phrase  starting with “by”

e.g.      The ball was dropped by the quarterback.

Why do my professors and other people tell me to avoid using the passive voice?

The main argument against passive voice is that it gets in the way of clarity. When you use passive voice it is not clear who or what is performing a certain action. The reader is left to wonder, “Who or what is the agent?”

For example, look at these two sentences that use the passive voice:

  • The family has been compensated for the damage.    (Who compensated them?)
    The band members were fooled into playing for free. (Who fooled them?)

Now, look at the sentences using active voice:

  • The insurance company compensated the family for the damage.
  • The pub owner fooled the band members into playing for free.

In instances like these, avoiding the passive voice will allow you to express your ideas much more clearly. The less your reader has to guess, struggle, and infer in your writing, the more lucid your ideas will be.

When do I use passive voice?

Contrary to what some people think, the passive voice does have its appropriate place and time. It can be used as a stylistic device to perform a few different functions:

  • If it is already clear in your writing who or what is performing an action, then it may make sense to use the passive voice. Referring to the example above, if you spend a paragraph talking about Johnny playing with a ball, then you can use the passive voice at the end of the paragraph because it is already clear to your reader who dropped the ball.
  • Passive voice also takes responsibility for an action off of a writer. For example, if you were president of an oil company and there was a spill, the public statement you release would be more likely to say, “The oil was spilled on Monday” as opposed to “My company spilled the oil.” In this case, you are taking the responsibility off of yourself and your company.
  • The technique can also be used if you, as a writer, do not know who performed an action. If pressed, it is better to be vague than it is to be inaccurate.