GrammarPhile Blog

Master Using the Passive Voice Effectively

Posted by Kelly Creighton   Jun 6, 2019 7:30:00 AM

sound waveWriters are typically instructed to write in the active voice because it leads to clear and engaging writing. But writing that uses the passive voice is often associated with vagueness and long-windedness. Consider and compare the following sentences:

  • The surgeon severed the young girl’s carotid artery while he was performing surgery.
  • The young girl’s carotid artery was severed during surgery. 

What differences between the two sentences do you notice—aside from the fact that one of the sentences is written in the active voice and one is written in the passive voice? Which sentence do you think is clearer or more effective? And which one would you be more likely to use or write yourself?

Although we’re often instructed to avoid the passive voice like the plague in our writing, it does have its merits when used strategically and effectively.

When to Use the Passive Voice

There are a few times when using the passive voice can be more effective than using the active voice.

  • When you want to emphasize the action of a sentence or passage instead of the actor of a sentence or passage.
  • When the actor of a sentence or passage is unknown or irrelevant. When you want attention to be placed on the action, not the doer of the action.

Example: The store was robbed yesterday at noon by an unknown armed man wearing a mask.

Example: The young girl’s carotid artery was severed during surgery.

  • When writing about or within scientific contexts.

Example: The chemical was added to the solution.

Just imagine for a second what it would be like to use the active voice when writing within scientific contexts. If written in the active voice, scientific reports and studies would seem very monotonous and would draw attention away from the experiments and scientific findings themselves.

Common Myths About the Passive Voice and Other Pitfalls to Avoid

It is not grammatically incorrect to use the passive voice. There are times, however, when writing in the active voice is more effective than writing in the passive voice, as detailed above.

Using a form of “to be” in a sentence or passage doesn’t mean that the sentence is written in the passive voice. For example, the following sentences aren’t written in the passive voice:

  • Darla is a great doctor at the hospital in town.
  • Mario has to study for an exam this evening.

Beware, grammar-checking software doesn’t always catch sentences that are written in the passive voice, because sentences written in the passive voice aren’t grammatically incorrect. So don’t expect your grammar-checking software to automatically change sentences written in the passive voice to sentences written in the active voice.

How to Implement the Passive Voice: A Review and Short Quiz

To write in the passive voice, you will need to use the following formula in your sentence(s):

                Form of “to be” verb + past participle

 To write a sentence in the active voice, you can:

  • Turn the object of the sentence into the subject of the sentence. You can include “by” in the sentence so that the subject of the sentence becomes the object of the sentence.
  • Change the verb(s) of the sentence, following the formula above.

Which of the following sentences are written in the passive voice? Share your answers in the comments below.

  1. The market in town has been privately owned for decades by the Smiths.
  2. Kaitlyn has to run by the grocery store when she gets off work this evening.
  3. Onboarding training is conducted during each employee’s first week with the company.
  4. After robbers broke into his home, John placed deadbolt locks on the doors.
  5. A new budget proposal has been written and shared by the CEO of the company.


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Topics: passive voice, active voice

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