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
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
“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.
The ball was dropped.
Was= to be Dropped= past
e.g. The ball was dropped by the
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:
Now, look at the sentences using active
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
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.