Passive Voice

There are many types of writing styles a writer can adopt when writing a specific written output. One of these writing styles that a person can use in their writing is called a passive voice.

What is the passive voice?

The passive voice is a grammatical construction where the object of an action becomes the subject of the sentence. In passive voice sentences, the focus shifts from who is performing the action (the actor) to the recipient of the action. The actor is often either omitted or included in a prepositional phrase starting with “by.”

Structure of Passive Voice

The structure typically involves the verb “to be” in various tenses, followed by the past participle of the main verb. Here’s a basic formula:

Subject+form of ’be’+past participle+(by+agent)

Passive voice Formula with Examples

TenseActive Voice FormulaPassive Voice Formula
Simple PresentS + V1 (s/es) + OS + am/is/are + V3 + by O
Simple PastS + V2 + OS + was/were + V3 + by O
Simple FutureS + will + V1 + OS + will be + V3 + by O
Present ContinuousS + am/is/are + V-ing + OS + am/is/are + being + V3 + by O
Past ContinuousS + was/were + V-ing + OS + was/were + being + V3 + by O
Future ContinuousS + will be + V-ing + ORarely used in passive voice
Present PerfectS + has/have + V3 + OS + has/have been + V3 + by O
Past PerfectS + had + V3 + OS + had been + V3 + by O
Future PerfectS + will have + V3 + OS + will have been + V3 + by O
Present Perfect Cont.S + has/have been + V-ing + OS + has/have been being + V3 + by O
Past Perfect Cont.S + had been + V-ing + ORarely used in passive voice
Infinitiveto + V1 + Oto be + V3 + by O
GerundV-ing + Obeing + V3 + by O
Modal VerbsS + modal (can, must, etc.) + V1 + OS + modal + be + V3 + by O

Examples

TenseActive VoicePassive Voice
Simple PresentThey cook the meal.The meal is cooked.
Simple PastThey cooked the meal.The meal was cooked.
Future SimpleThey will cook the meal.The meal will be cooked.
Present ContinuousThey are cooking the meal.The meal is being cooked.
Past ContinuousThey were cooking the meal.The meal was being cooked.
Present PerfectThey have cooked the meal.The meal has been cooked.
Past PerfectThey had cooked the meal.The meal had been cooked.
Future PerfectThey will have cooked the meal.The meal will have been cooked.
Modal Verbs (can, must, should, etc.)They can cook the meal.The meal can be cooked.

The Difference Between Active and Passive voice

AspectActive VoicePassive Voice
DefinitionThe subject performs the action.The action is performed on the subject.
FocusFocuses on the doer of the action.Focuses on the receiver of the action or the action itself.
StructureSubject + Verb + ObjectSubject + Form of ‘be’ + Past Participle of Verb + (by + Agent)
Example“The cat (subject) chased (verb) the mouse (object).”“The mouse (subject) was chased (verb) by the cat (agent).”
Clarity and DirectnessGenerally more direct and clear.Often less direct and can be vague if the agent is omitted.
Common UsePreferred in most academic and professional writing for clarity.Common in scientific or formal contexts where focus is on action.
EmphasisEmphasizes the action’s performer.Emphasizes the action or the recipient of the action.
Word CountTypically uses fewer words.Usually uses more words to convey the same meaning.
Passivity/ActivityConveys a sense of activity and dynamism.Often conveys passivity, making it suitable for objective writing.
SuitabilityIdeal for most types of writing, including storytelling and news.Preferred in technical reports and data-focused documents.
Example Sentences“The researcher conducted the experiment.”“The experiment was conducted by the researcher.”

Creative ways to use the passive voice in writing

Using the passive voice creatively in writing can enhance the style, tone, and clarity of your narrative, especially when you want to emphasize the action or the object of the action rather than the doer.

1. Highlight the Action or Result

Passive voice can be used to put the focus on the action or its results rather than on who performed the action. This is particularly useful in scientific writing, formal documentation, or when the doer is unknown or unimportant.

  • Example: “The masterpiece was painted over several months.”

2. Create an Air of Mystery

By omitting the doer, the passive voice can create a mysterious or suspenseful tone. This technique is often used in mystery and thriller genres to obscure identities and motives.

  • Example: “The letters were delivered at midnight.”

3. Emphasize the Victim or Object of Action

In narratives where the experience of the subject is more important than who or what is acting upon it, the passive voice helps to emphasize the experience or suffering of the protagonist or object.

  • Example: “The town was devastated by the hurricane.”

4. Formal Tone

The passive voice can lend a formal or academic tone to your writing, which is often required in scholarly articles, legal documents, and formal reports.

  • Example: “A review of the literature was conducted to formulate the guidelines.”

5. Impersonal Construction

When you want to make statements impersonal and remove the subjectivity associated with the actor, the passive voice serves to neutralize and depersonalize the action.

  • Example: “Mistakes were made during the project’s execution.”

6. Shift Focus

If you wish to shift the reader’s focus from the doer to the process or the recipient, the passive voice can be effectively utilized. This is often seen in process descriptions or instructions.

  • Example: “The cake must be baked at 350 degrees for twenty minutes.”

7. Political or Sensitive Topics

In political or sensitive contexts, the passive voice can be used to avoid assigning direct blame or responsibility, which can be a diplomatic approach to potentially contentious issues.

  • Example: “Regrettably, the files were deleted.”

8. Evoke a Sense of Ongoing Process

Passive constructions can give a sense of ongoing process or tradition, which is useful in historical or cultural discussions.

  • Example: “Over the centuries, many legends have been told about this place.”

9. Stylistic Variation

Mixing active and passive constructions can add stylistic variety to your writing, preventing monotony and maintaining the reader’s interest.

  • Example: “The experiment was set up carefully, and the scientists recorded the results meticulously.”

10. Enhance Descriptive Passages

Use the passive voice in descriptive passages to enhance the setting or background, making it more vivid and integral to the scene.

  • Example: “The forest floor was carpeted with a thick layer of pine needles.”

How to identify the passive voice?

1. Look for the Verb “To Be”

  • The passive voice often involves some form of the verb “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) used as an auxiliary verb.
  • Example: The book was read by her.

2. Identify the Past Participle

  • Check if the main verb of the sentence is in its past participle form (typically ending in -ed, -en, -d, -t, -n, or -ne).
  • Example: The window was broken by the ball.

3. Find the Doer (Agent)

  • Look for a “by” phrase, which, if present, usually indicates that the sentence is passive. The “by” phrase names the doer or agent of the action.
  • Example: The song was sung by the choir.

4. Check the Subject

  • See if the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action rather than the doer. In passive voice, the subject is typically acted upon.
  • Example: The letter was delivered yesterday.

5. Confirm Object Position

  • In passive sentences, what would be the object in an active sentence becomes the subject.
  • Example: A new policy has been implemented by the management.

6. Examine Sentence Focus

  • Determine whether the focus of the sentence is on the action itself or the recipient of the action, rather than on who is performing the action.
  • Example: Mistakes were made during the project.

7. Look for Missing Agents

  • Passive constructions sometimes omit the agent completely, especially when the agent is unknown or irrelevant.
  • Example: The window was broken.

8. Verb Phrasing Variety

  • Consider if altering the sentence to include a typical action verb and a clear subject changes the clarity or meaning. This can help confirm if the passive voice is being used.
  • Example: The mural was painted over the weekend.

9. Use of Prepositional Phrases

  • Passive voice can be more verbose and often includes prepositional phrases starting with “by” that are not essential to the sentence’s core meaning.
  • Example: The event will be attended by hundreds.

10. Sentence Reversibility Test

  • A good test for passive voice is to try to reverse the sentence’s structure to make it active. If you can place the “by” phrase subject as the main subject and the sentence still makes logical sense, it is likely passive.
  • Example: Original: The trophy was won by the team. Reversed: The team won the trophy.

1. Passive Voice Script

2. Passive Voice Practice

Passive Voice Practice

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3. Active and Passive Voice Scientific Writing

Active and Passive Voice Scientific Writing

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4. Passive Voice Processing Instruction Revisited

Passive Voice Processing Instruction Revisited

files.eric.ed.gov

5. Revealing Knowledge of the Passive Voice

Revealing Knowledge of the Passive Voice

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6. Tips Active v Passive Voice

Tips Active v Passive Voice

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7. Passive Voice in Academic Writing

Passive Voice in Academic Writing

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8. Active and Passive Voice Exercise

Active and Passive Voice Exercise

scmemorial.org

9. Understanding Passive Voice

Understanding Passive Voice

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10. Learning to Use Passive Voice

Learning to Use Passive Voice

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11. Converting Passive Voice to Active Voice

Converting Passive Voice to Active Voice

yvcc.edu

What Is a Passive Voice

Passive voice is a style of writing that is known for its ability to make a statement’s action be very subtle and obfuscated. At times it is hard to understand when a reader reads a statement written in a passive voice.

How to Minimize Writing in The Passive Voice in Book Writing

A lot of professionals do not like seeing passive writing used in book writing as it will make one’s writing less direct and subtle. This means that one must actively minimize one’s proclivity in writing passive voice.

Step 1: Learn or Refresh Yourself About Passive and Active Voices

Begin by learning or refreshing one’s knowledge about voices in writing. This will help you innately know the concept of voices and will help improve your reflexes when using these voices in your writing.

Step 2: Practice Writing in Active Voice

One of the best ways to minimize one’s chances of reflexively writing in a passive voice is to practice intentionally writing in an active voice. This will build up one’s ability to write in an active voice without it being intentional.

Step 3: Use a Writing Software

Writing software helps one catch mistakes without needing to expend extra energy and thought into searching for mistakes. Examples of writing software include Grammarly and Prowritingaid.

Step 4: Practice Passive Voice Exercises and Worksheets

Like soft skills, people can integrate different techniques and practices into their writing to augment and improve the output. You can use various passive voice worksheets and exercises to help build up your writing skills.


Any clause can be passive 

Not every clause can be converted into passive voice effectively or appropriately. Here’s a clearer understanding of when a clause can be turned into passive voice and when it cannot:

Clauses Suitable for Passive Voice Conversion:

  1. Transitive Verbs:
    • Only clauses with transitive verbs (verbs that require a direct object) can be converted into passive voice. This is because passive constructions shift the focus from the subject (the doer) to the object (the receiver) of the action.
    • Example: Active: “The chef prepared the meal.” -> Passive: “The meal was prepared by the chef.”

Clauses Unsuitable for Passive Voice Conversion:

  1. Intransitive Verbs:
    • Clauses that contain intransitive verbs (verbs that do not take a direct object) cannot be passivized. These verbs include actions like “sleep,” “arrive,” “go,” and “sit.”
    • Example: Active: “He sleeps.” -> Passive: Incorrect to convert
  2. Linking Verbs:
    • Clauses with linking verbs (verbs that connect the subject to a subject complement, such as “be,” “seem,” “become”) typically cannot be converted into passive voice. These verbs do not denote actions performed on an object but rather states of being.
    • Example: Active: “She is a teacher.” -> Passive: Incorrect to convert
  3. Clauses Without a Clear Agent:
    • If a clause does not include a clear agent performing the action, converting it into passive voice can make it awkward or overly vague.
    • Example: Active: “People speak English here.” -> Passive: “English is spoken here.” (The agent ‘people’ is somewhat vague and general.)

Considerations:

  • Contextual Appropriateness: Even if a clause can be technically converted into passive voice, it may not always be appropriate due to stylistic, contextual, or clarity considerations.
  • Clarity and Emphasis: In many cases, using the passive voice may obscure who is responsible for an action, which can be undesirable in legal, technical, or academic writing where clarity of agency is crucial.
  • Stylistic Choices: The decision between using active or passive constructions often depends on what you want to emphasize in your sentence, the tone you wish to convey, and how formally you need to present your information.

Passive voice misuse

Misusing the passive voice can complicate your writing and obscure your meaning. Here are some simple points outlining common misuses of the passive voice:

  1. Overuse in Writing:
    • Excessive use of the passive voice can make text seem wordy, evasive, or overly formal.
  2. Lack of Clarity:
    • Passive sentences often lack clarity because they hide the subject performing the action, making it hard for readers to follow who is responsible for what.
  3. Impersonal Tone:
    • Frequent use can create an impersonal tone, which might not engage readers as effectively as a more direct, active voice.
  4. Decreased Readability:
    • Texts dominated by passive constructions are generally harder to read and understand compared to those with active sentences.
  5. Inappropriate Contexts:
    • Using the passive voice in situations that traditionally benefit from a strong, decisive tone (e.g., leadership articles, calls to action) can dilute the message’s impact.
  6. Redundancy and Verbosity:
    • Passive sentences are typically more verbose than their active counterparts. This can lead to unnecessary redundancy in writing.
  7. Ambiguity About the Actor:
    • When the doer of the action is omitted (often done in passive voice), it can lead to ambiguity, leaving readers guessing about responsibilities and roles.
  8. Inefficient Communication:
    • Passive structures can impede the flow of information, making it less efficient, especially in procedural and instructional writing.
  9. Undermining Authority:
    • Use in professional settings can unintentionally undermine the authority or expertise of the subject, as actions seem less assertive.
  10. Distortion of Intended Meaning:
    • Misplacement of emphasis due to passive construction can distort the intended meaning, focusing on the wrong aspect of the sentence.

FAQ’s

What is the Rule of Passive Voice?

The rule of passive voice is to focus on the action or the recipient by making the object of an action into the subject of the sentence. This is done using the formula: [Subject] + [form of “be”] + [past participle of the verb] + [optional: “by” + agent].

What are 5 Examples of Active Voice?

  1. The chef cooks the meal.
  2. She writes an email.
  3. They painted the house last summer.
  4. He will answer the question.
  5. We are planning a surprise party.

These examples highlight the subject performing the action directly upon the object.

How Do I Write in Passive Voice?

To write in passive voice, identify the object of the active sentence and make it the subject of the new sentence, use the appropriate form of the verb “to be,” and add the past participle of the main verb. Optionally include the original subject with “by”.

Example:
Active: The chef prepares the dish.
Passive: The dish is prepared by the chef.

Passive voice is a style of writing that focuses on subtly indicating the overall tone and message of the statement. This means that the subject of the statement is not the doer of the action and is instead receiving the action in the statement. 

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