Avoiding the Passive Voice

Avoid the passive voice? I can't remember what it is!

Most verbs we use are in the active voice: The subject of the sentence performs the action of the sentence.

Antigone buried Polyneices. (active voice)

Antigone is the subject; buried is the verb. Antigone did the action—the burying.

When the verb is passive, the subject of the sentence receives the action.

Polyneices was buried by Antigone. (passive voice)

Both sentences look correct to me.

Both sentences are correct.

So what's the problem?

It's a matter of style.

Passive sentences are usually wordier, more pompous, and harder to understand than active sentences. They lack the force of active sentences. Often you have no way of knowing who or what did the action.

Polyneices was buried. (by whom?)

If it were important, wouldn't my high school English teachers have stressed it?

High school teachers may not have taught the passive voice because they have more serious problems to comment on in the papers they grade. As the quality of your writing improves, teachers raise their expectations.

But I hear politicians on the evening news use the passive voice all the time.

I don't doubt it. Politicians (among others) may prefer the ambiguity possible with the passive voice. Suppose you were the President and had been responsible for a not-so-little error in judgment, which sentence would you prefer?

Active: Yesterday, I accidentally dropped a bomb on Toronto.

Passive: Yesterday, a bomb was accidentally dropped on Toronto.

If I were President, I'd choose the passive voice in a heartbeat. Maybe the voters won't figure out who did it. But that lack of clarity is one reason your professors don't like the passive voice.

But I still like the passive voice. It sounds more impressive.

Great writers routinely avoid the passive voice unless they have compelling reasons for it. Beginning writers aren't knowledgeable enough to overuse the passive voice. Only moderately sophisticated writers—like College students—use the passive voice too often.

Even though the passive voice may sound impressive, we need to train ourselves to choose the active voice instead. Mediocre writers strive to impress; good writers strive to be true, clear, precise, concise, and emphatic.

Is it ever preferable to use the passive voice? Why does it exist if it shouldn't be used?

Here are good reasons to use the passive voice:

  • Sometimes you don't know who did the action.

  • Sometimes the receiver of the action (or the action itself) is much more important than the doer of the action. 

In such cases, choose the passive voice.

For example: Everyone in the village was quarantined for smallpox.
(We care more about the people who were quarantined than the people who did the quarantining.)

 

Don't many scientists and other scholars use the passive voice to report their findings?

You've made a good point. Lots of people writing for academic journals, especially in the sciences, do use the passive voice. I suppose they modestly consider the results of their research more important than they are. Nevertheless, many journals nowadays encourage the use of the active voice instead—for the reasons mentioned earlier.

 

I use the passive voice to avoid using "I." For example, I write "It will be shown" instead of "I will show...."

True, you are sometimes asked to avoid the pronoun "I" in formal academic writing. (Using the pronoun "I" is fine in most other writing. Try writing an autobiography or a love letter without it!)

Even so, in general, even in academic writing, you rarely need the passive voice. Suppose you wanted to prove that smoking is harmful (a pitiful thesis, to be sure).

Weak

I will show that smoking is harmful.

Use of "I." Wordy.

Also weak

It will be shown that smoking is harmful.

Use of passive voice. Wordy.

Better

Smoking is harmful.

The thesis is stated clearly without excess words.
The reader understands that you are writing the paper and making the assertion.

 

I'm convinced, and I understand the difference between active and passive voice. 

But I still have trouble spotting verbs in the passive voice in my papers.

Let your computer help you. Here are two ways:

  1. Use a grammar checker. It will flag the passive for you every time.

  2. Use the search function on your computer to find those words that may indicate a passive. Here's how:

    • First, a passive sentence always includes a helping verb like "am," "is," "was," "were," or "been" and a past participle like "buried," "dropped," or "shown."
      Examples: This program has been brought to you by PBS.
      This paper was written at the last minute.

    • Second, a passive sentence often includes the word "by."
      Example: Important changes in operating procedures will be considered by the committee.

    Warning:  Just because a sentence includes a helping verb or a past participle or the word by doesn't necessarily mean the sentence is in the passive voice.  If life were only that easy....

When you find passive sentences, decide whether or not you want to change them to the active voice. Usually, the answer should be yes.

I've found verbs in the passive voice. How do I go about changing them?

Decide who or what is doing the action? Make that the subject. (If it's not stated, figure it out.)

What is the action? Make that the verb.

Examples:

 

Passive

Changes in the preceptorial will be considered by the committee.

 

Change to

The committee will consider changes in the preceptorial.

 

 

 

 

Passive

This paper was written at the last minute.

 

Change to

I wrote this paper at the last minute.

 

I've tried. I'm still stuck.

Come visit us at the Writing Center in Room 226 in Schaffer Library. We're open Mondays to Fridays from 2:30 to 5:00 p.m. and Sundays to Thursdays from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m.