Passive Voice


Although you may have encountered a writing teacher somewhere along the way who described a weak, unclear, or otherwise ineffective sentence as “passive,” a passive-voice sentence is actually a more specific creation. What’s more, passive-voice sentences can be grammatically correct—just ineffective. There’s a difference.

In any sentence written in the passive voice, two things typically occur: (1) the subject of the sentence—the agent of action in the sentence—is behind the sentence’s main verb, not in front of it; or (2) the subject of the sentence is absent (though sometimes implied).

Here’s an example of the first scenario:

◊ The outcome of the election was decided by the Supreme Court.

The words in front of the sentence’s main verb, the outcome of the election, are not the person completing the action. The Supreme Court is the agent of the action, but The Supreme Court is behind the verb (was decided) in the above.

Making passive sentences active:

To change passive-voice sentences into active-voice sentences, move the person or thing that is completing the action into the subject position of the sentence—in front of the verb. Notice how the sentence becomes more direct and also more concise:

PASSIVE: The outcome of the election was decided by the Supreme Court.


ACTIVE: The Supreme Court decided the outcome of the election.

The words was and by are deleted, streamlining the sentence.

Here are three examples of the second scenario, the one in which the subject is absent from the sentence (though implied):

◊ Seatbelts should be worn at all times.

◊ Serious violations were committed.

◊ The store’s cash register and ice cream freezer were emptied in the robbery.

Note that in the above examples the agent of the action may be universal, purposely obscured, or unknown.

When to Use the Passive Voice:

The instances in which the subject is absent from the sentence represent an intentional use of the passive voice. Another instance involves the writer’s choice to emphasize the direct object—that which is acted upon in the sentence—rather than the sentence’s subject. Here’s an example:

◊ The Vanishing Half was written by Brit Bennett.

The above is a passive-voice construction. Why? Because the agent of the verb, or the person or thing completing the action in the sentence (also known as the subject), is not in front of the sentence’s main verb.

To reiterate, however, sometimes a writer will want to use the passive voice to emphasize the person or thing being acted upon, not the person or thing completing the action. Here’s an extended example:

◊ The current publishing season has seen a number of noteworthy books by women of color. The novel The Vanishing Half was written by Brit Bennett. The essay collection Intimations was written by Zadie Smith. The debut novel Luster was written by Raven Leilani.

All of this is a complicated way of saying that the S-V-O (subject-verb-object) construction—the active voice—is preferable in most, but not all, writing. The active voice is the most direct and most concise way of communicating an idea in written English.

More Sentence-Level Writing
Who vs. Whom
Integrating Quotations in MLA Style
Titles—Quotations or Italics?