How to fix passive voice

How to fix passive voice

One of the keys to holding a reader’s interest from beginning to end is mastering the skill of writing in the “active voice”. It isn’t that difficult, actually – you do it all the time – but it’s very easy to make the mistake of slipping into passive voice throughout your work.

Passive voice, left unchecked, slaughters reader interest more efficiently than a glaring typo.

When a reader catches a small misspelling, they at least can chalk it up to a mistake. But when they read too much passive voice in your writing … well, they just think you’re boring.

How to spot passive voice in your writing

You end up with passive voice in your writing when you get your nouns out of order within a sentence. The subject of your sentence, not the object in the sentence, should precede the verb. For example:

“James wrote a killer blog post.”

“The killer blog post was written by James.”

You already know the difference in readability between those two sentences, and that’s because, most of the time, passive voice, doesn’t feel right or sound natural to you.

You can also spot passive voice when you look for two verbs stuck together: “was written” was the dead giveaway in the example above. Other common red flags of passive language include “has been”, “will be” and “to be”.

For the most part, you’ll write in active voice instinctively. You automatically knew the second sentence would sound clunky if you said it out loud, so chances are low that you’d ever consider writing it that way.

However, passive voice is a sneaky devil, especially in longer or more complex sentences where it’s easy to misjudge the subject and the object. Take a look at this example:

“The sports of hockey, curling and ice skating are loved by Canadians in particular.”

That looks straightforward and readable, right? Now compare it with this version:

“Canadians particularly love hockey, curling and ice skating.”

Read them both out loud. (Whisper if you need to.) The second one (in active voice) is easier to say, which means it’s easier to read. It has more energy. It doesn’t feel like it’s trailing off into a land of boredom.

How to fix passive voice instantly

Passive voice is easy to fix. All you have to do is rewrite your sentence so that the subject of your sentence comes before the verb. You’ll find your sentences tighten up as you do so, which automatically improves your writing, too.

Checking your sentences for passive voice may seem like a chore, but it’s not as demanding as scouring your text for typos. Just keep your eyes open for action-based sentences.

If someone is doing something, double check to see if it looks like the “something” was being done to them.

You can also check for passive voice using the Hemmingway App, a website that scans through your writing looking for examples of passive voice and difficult-to-read sentences. It’ll also gives you an indication of the grade level of your writing, which is a nice plus.

Why is passive voice so pervasive in writing?

I’ll leave that to Stephen King, who said it best in his book On Writing:

I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers love passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close it’s eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think that unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyer’s torts majestic, I guess it does.

I agree with this. Far too often writers believe that they have to make their writing sound impressive and wordy – I mean, “eloquent” – and that passive voice has some sort of grown-up, schoolteacher feel.

No. It doesn’t. Not even close. Tight, active writing is more impressive, almost every time.

Of course, there are exceptions

At the beginning of this article, I didn’t say passive voice was inherently bad for your writing. I said that passive voice, left unchecked, would damage readability and interest.

Sometimes you’ll actually want to use the passive voice. Sometimes it sounds more memorable and makes your writing pop. In fact, I used passive voice earlier when I said:

If someone is doing something, double check to see if it looks like the “something” was being done to them.

In this case, passive voice adds weight and impact to the sentence, and makes the reader think (in a good way). But you need to use it intentionally, and test against other variations of the same sentence.

So that’s what you need to know about eliminating passive voice from your writing. Keep it active, make sure your nouns and verbs are in the right place, and you’ll be off to the races. And remember: You don’t have to avoid passive voice entirely – only about 99.5% of the time.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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How to fix passive voice

The passive voice is often maligned by teachers and professors as a bad writing habit. Or, to put it in the active voice, teachers and professors across the English-speaking world malign the passive voice as a bad writing habit.

What is the passive voice?

In general, the active voice makes your writing stronger, more direct, and, you guessed it, more active. The subject is something, or it does the action of the verb in the sentence. With the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by some other performer of the verb. (In case you weren’t paying attention, the previous two sentences use the type of voice they describe.)

But the passive voice is not incorrect. In fact, there are times when it can come in handy. Read on to learn how to form the active and passive voices, when using the passive voice is a good idea, and how to avoid confusing it with similar forms.

The difference between active and passive voice

While tense is all about time references, voice describes whether the grammatical subject of a clause performs or receives the action of the verb. Here’s the formula for the active voice: [subject]+[verb (performed by the subject)]+[optional object]

In a passive voice construction, the grammatical subject of the clause receives the action of the verb. So, the ball from the above sentence, which is receiving the action, becomes the subject. The formula: [subject]+[some form of the verb to be]+[past participle of a transitive verb]+[optional prepositional phrase]

That last little bit—“by Chester”—is a prepositional phrase that tells you who the performer of the action is. But even though Chester is the one doing the kicking, he’s no longer the grammatical subject. A passive voice construction can even drop him from the sentence entirely:

How’s that for anticlimactic?

When (and when not) to use the passive voice

If you’re writing anything with a definitive subject who’s performing an action, you’ll be better off using the active voice. And if you search your document for instances of was, is, or were and your page lights up with instances of passive voice, it may be a good idea to switch to active voice.

That said, there are times when the passive voice does a better job of presenting an idea, especially in certain formal, professional, and legal discussions. Here are three common uses of the passive voice:

1 Reports of crimes or incidents with unknown perpetrators

If you knew who stole the car, it probably wouldn’t be as big a problem. The passive voice emphasizes the stolen item and the action of theft.

2 Scientific contexts

Who places the rat into the maze? Scientists, duh. But that’s less important than the experiment they’re conducting. Therefore, passive voice.

3 When you want to emphasize an action itself and the doer of the action is irrelevant or distracting:

How many people can remember off the top of their heads who swears in presidents? Clearly the occasion of swearing in the commander in chief is the thing to emphasize here. In each of the above contexts, the action itself—or the person or thing receiving the action—is the part that matters. That means the performer of the action can appear in a prepositional phrase or be absent from the sentence altogether.

Creative ways to use the passive voice in writing

The above examples show some formal uses of the passive voice, but some writers take advantage of the shift in emphasis it provides for other reasons. Here are moments when the passive voice is a stylistic decision that suits the author’s writing goals. 1 Avoid getting blamed There are times when you want to get away with something without making it crystal-clear who’s at fault. The classic example:

Who made them? Is anyone taking responsibility? What’s the solution here? One political scientist dubbed this structure the “past exonerative” because it’s meant to exonerate a speaker from whatever foul they may have committed. In other words, drop the subject, get off the hook.

2 Beat around the bush

Jane Austen is a master of poking fun at her characters so euphemistically that it seems almost polite, and the passive voice is one of her favorite methods for doing that.

Austen could have rephrased this sentence like so:

“Though Mr. Middleton carried his entreaties to a point of perseverance beyond civility, they could not give offense.”

Though maybe she means something closer to:

“Mr. Middleton pushed his invitations beyond the point of politeness and into pushiness, but he still meant well.”

In cases like this, the passive voice allows for more polite phrasing, even if it’s also a little less clear.

3 Make your reader pay more attention to the something

This is like the president getting sworn in: the thing that gets the action of the verb is more important than the people performing the action.

Here, you could invert the sentence to say “Historians evoked that treasure (and so on).” But that would take the focus away from that oh-so-intriguing treasure and the corpse. And since the historians are less important here, the author makes the choice to stress the key idea of the sentence through the passive voice.

Here’s another famous example that puts the emphasis on what happens to the subject, instead of on what the subject is doing:

“All men” (and these days, women, too) get boosted to the front of the phrase because their equality and rights are the focus. It makes sense that a statement declaring independence would focus on the people who get that independence, after all.

So writers use it. Can you?

The above examples lean toward the literary side of things, but don’t forget that there are times when the passive voice is useful and necessary in daily life. In each of the sentences below, the passive voice is natural and clear. Rewriting these sentences in the active voice renders them sterile, awkward, or syntactically contorted. Passive: Bob Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident. Active: A motorcycle accident injured Bob Dylan. Passive: Elvis is rumored to be alive. Active: People rumor Elvis to be alive. Passive: Don’t be fooled! Active: Don’t allow anything to fool you!

Passive voice misuse

Sometimes what looks like passive voice isn’t passive voice at all. If you’re not careful, even the most careful eye can mistake the following sentences for passive voice.

Despite what any well-meaning English teachers may have told you, none of the sentences above are written in the passive voice. The sentence about the leaves, in fact, was (wrongly) presented as an example of the passive voice by none other than Strunk and White in The Elements of Style. Here’s how to remember: using the verb to be doesn’t automatically put a verb phrase into the passive voice. You also need a past participle. That’s how to keep passive voice masqueraders from fooling you.

Use Grammarly to catch the passive voice

Grammarly catches instances of passive voice in your writing so you know when you need to switch it up. For example, when writing this, Grammarly pointed out that the first phrase was, in fact, written in passive voice. We ignored it, of course, for style reasons.

How to fix passive voice

The Complete Guide to Eliminating Passive Voice

  • November 14, 2016
  • by Hannah Bauman

How to fix passive voice

As an editor, I see nearly everyone using passive voice in their writing. While passive voice isn’t always wrong, it’s wordy and ineffective. It’s weak and doesn’t show any conviction or strength in your language. Quite frankly, it’s annoying – I don’t like trying to figure out the actor in a sentence and as an editor, I just want writers to be clear! Don’t hide your subjects and objects and make everything a mess!

Passive voice is the second most common mistake I fix on a daily basis; punctuation is first on that list. If it’s such a pervasive mistake, how do you fix your writing to be clear, easy to understand, and engaging? The key is to switch passive sentences to active sentences. What’s the difference between an active and passive sentence? I’ve outlined the basics below.

What is active voice? What is passive voice?

In active voice, the subject is doing the action. Subjects are highlighted in red, actions (aka verbs) are highlighted in blue, and objects are in green.

  1. The cat chased the toy .
  2. She ate the cookie .
  3. He closed the door .

In passive voice, the subject is acted upon. It makes the object look like the subject/actor, but that’s not *really* the case. Subjects are highlighted in red, actions are highlighted in blue, and objects are in green.

  1. The toy was chased by the cat .
  2. The cookie was eaten by her .
  3. The door was closed by him .

If you compare the examples, you can see that active voice is concise and easy to read, and the subject and action are always close together. There are no extra words or phrases in active voice. Writing in active voice keeps your writing clear.

Identifying Passive Voice

If you can identify the subject and the object in a sentence, you can easily identify passive voice. If you can’t identify the subject and the object in a sentence, you should probably ask your grade school teacher. Or, if you’re using Microsoft Word, follow these quick steps:

  1. Go to File > Options > Proofing
  2. Under “When correcting spelling and grammar in word,” go to “writing style” and select “grammar & style.” Next, hit the settings button.
  3. Scroll down to “style” and select “passive voice.” Hit “ok” on this dialogue box and then click “ok” again.

Now, all passive sentences and phrases will be identified by a blue squiggly line. Now that you’ve identified sentences with passive voice, you can make changes as necessary.

How do you change from passive to active voice?

Changing from passive to active voice is easier said than done. Make the subject do the action. Shift the focus from the direct/indirect object back to the actor.

Instead of this: The monument was visited by Hannah .

Try this: Hannah visited the monument .

Notice in all of the examples that in changing a sentence from passive to active voice, we got rid of variations of “is/was/were.” This is an easy way to identify passive voice. If you have a past
participle in front of your verb, chances are that you’re writing in passive voice.

When can you use passive voice?

Sometimes, passive voice is necessary or just makes more sense. The general rule is that when the person/object being acted upon is more important than the doer, use passive voice.

Example: President Lincoln was assassinated .

In this example, we don’t really care who assassinated Lincoln. I mean, technically we do, but Lincoln is way more important than John Wilkes Booth. Here, the object, President Lincoln, is more important than the subject/actor, and you can express that with the passive voice. [Ok, maybe this isn’t the best topic for an example, but like I said – you almost never use passive voice!]


Changing sentences–or paragraphs–from passive to active voice doesn’t have to be hard. Once you’re able to identify the basic parts of the sentence that contribute to passive voice, switching things up becomes a lot easier! By simply moving parts of your sentence around, your writing can take on a whole new life and attract more readers.

Whether you’re writing a novel, self-publishing an e-book, or just want to make sure your college paper shines, eliminating passive voice is the easiest trick to take your writing to the next level.

And, if you’re still feeling overwhelmed or just want a second set of eyes, pop on over to my contact page or the Between the Lines Facebook group for assistance!

Passive voice misuse! Most teachers prefer their students to write in the active voice. Direct writing helps students fine-tune their message without tripping over grammar. Focusing on the subject allows the writers to grow a distinct writing style.

In a school teachers discourage the use of the passive voice in their students’ essays. Sometimes teachers will lower your grade on your paper for using the passive voice. These types of corrections cause people to believe the passive voice is bad; however, the passive voice is not bad. It’s just misunderstood.

In contrast, others lean into the passive voice. They think using an abundance of words makes them look more intelligent. The opposite of this is true. Using extra words to look fancier dilutes your argument in your writing. Choose crisp clean sentences more often to keep your readers engaged.

Table of Contents

Passive Voice Misuse

How to Change a Sentence from Passive to Active?

If you are not using the passive voice deliberately you need to use the active voice. The majority of writing must be in the active form and most uses of the passive voice are unintentional.

Passive Voice Example

  • A mistake happened with your credit card bill, but efforts were made to fix it.

In the passive voice, the sentence appears stuffy and evasive. The credit card company’s failure to take responsibility for their action suggests deception. No one wants to work with a company that lacks the respect to be honest with their customers. By not accepting their culpability the credit card company scares off their clientele.

To correct a grammar accident you need to restructure the sentence. By rewriting the sentence in the active voice the credit card company’s reputation will not suffer.

Active Voice Rewrite Example

  • We made a mistake with your credit card bill, but we have made every effort to fix it.

The sentence becomes active when you drop “we” into it. In addition, changing the verb from the past participle to the past tense makes the sentence active. When the sentence is active the company appears reliable and forthright.

Correct Weak Structure

Improve any sentence by including the subject. The subject fleshes out the details of a sentence and grants the reader more clarity.

  • If any problems arise, contact me Friday.

Identify the subject to make this sentence easier to understand. To find the subject look for the person addressed in the text. If the subject does not appear in any clause in the sentence you may be able to infer it.

The subject missing in the above example is “you”. You are the person who will need to contact the assistant.

  • If you have any problems, you can call me Friday.

With the subject included the conversation seems more intimate instead of generic.

How to fix passive voice

Over the last couple of months, we’ve looked at common grammatical errors that often weasel their way into writers’ work. Well, we’re now moving into more of a gray zone; something that pops up regularly in prose that’s not necessarily incorrect. It can, however, make your writing confusing and overcrowded with unnecessary words.

Passive voice

Passive voice is when the subject of a sentence is the thing or person upon which an action is performed; the subject receives the action. Sentences that use “by” are often written in the passive voice. Let’s have a look at an example:

The race was won by Genevieve .

We’ll use this clause as a tool to think about passive voice even more simply. Here, the emphasis is not placed on the woman, who won the race. Instead, the focus is the race itself, which just happened to be won by Genevieve. It does not preference the most important component of the sentence – Genevieve – and it uses an excessive amount of words to convey a very brief piece of information.

How to fix passive voice

Active Voice

Well, how do we fix it?” I can hear you begging at your computer. It’s easy. We just use active voice. Active voice is the inverse of passive voice. Rather than focusing on the (in this case) person to whom the action has happened, sentences in the active voice emphasize the agent who performed the action. We do this, in very simple terms, by removing the “by”. Take the information that follows “by” and put it at the beginning of the sentence. This way, what was tucked away at the end of the clause becomes the focus.

Here’s how the active voice looks when applied to our example:

With this sentence, we have all the information we had in the first example, but in a more concise form and with Genevieve as the subject of the sentence who performed the action. Passive voice can lead to your writing being ambiguous and too long. By using the active voice, these problems are mitigated.

Use it wisely

This does not mean, however, that you should never use the passive voice; there are select circumstances when it is appropriate. Generally, there are two instances in which you might wish to employ the passive voice. The first is when you need to be discreet. Let’s say you have to send out an email that must address a recent incident at your workplace. You may not wish to name the people involved in the incident, so writing passively can focus attention on the snafu itself, rather than those in the wrong. For example:

Yesterday, a particularly long lunch was taken in our office.

Yes, there is the insinuation that the misbehavior was undertaken by people in the office, but the focus is on the ‘particularly long lunch’.

The other instance in which you might wish to use passive voice is when the event or experience is more important than who or what performed it. The example below demonstrates this:

The key focus at this point is the fact that the newspaper was sold, not who bought it. Indeed, this is a punchy and concise sentence that will catch a reader’s attention.

Closing note

So, we’ve now got a better understanding of what the passive and active voices are, and when we should use them. While we did look at a couple of instances where the passive voice is preferable, it’s important to remember that generally the active voice is a better tool to make your writing concise, simple, and clear.

If ever you’re in doubt about which voice is best for your writing, try reading what you’ve got aloud. If it’s written with the passive voice and sounds wordy and confusing, your audience will probably think it reads that way too. For an even more effective trick, you can plug it into Outwrite, which will pick up on when you’ve used passive voice and offer suggestions on how to remedy it.

How to fix passive voice

How to fix passive voice

Conseil d'une experte de l'écriture : les 5 questions clés pour améliorer son écriture.

Écrire, voici un geste qui nous accompagne tout au long de notre vie, que nous réalisons le plus souvent sans y prêter attention. Pourtant, derrière ce simple mot, écrire, se cachent autant de définitions que d’intentions. Griffonner une liste de courses ou rédiger une thèse, répondre à un email,

How to fix passive voice

When you should (and shouldn't) use a comma

The comma is one of the most versatile punctuation marks, but it’s often used incorrectly

Auxiliary verb phrases are shown in italics with yellow highlights, while the transitive action verb is shown bold with green highlights.

Click on the bio hazard symbol ( ☣ ) on the left to summon the zombies. The phrase “by zombies” will be inserted (by zombies!) next to the transitive verb in the sentence list above. If the new sentence reads clearly as the zombies doing the action, the sentence is written in passive voice. Click the bio hazard symbol again for the sentences to return to normal.

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About the Passive Voice Detector

The passive voice detector automatically detects passive voice in a block of text (now with the aid of zombies!).

When a sentence is written in passive voice, the subject is being acted upon rather than doing the acting. Passive voice is often avoided by professional writers because it can make the sentence needlessly longer, more complicated and unclear as well as shifting the emphases away from the sentence subject. While there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about passive voice, the general rule of thumb is to strive for less than 2% passive voice.

The most common passive voice construction is a variant of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ followed by the past participle of a transitive verb. Our passive voice detector finds this form, as well as other less common constructions, including additional auxiliary verbs like ‘get’ (e.g. “Every friday he gets paid.”). A common mistake is to assume every past form of the ‘to be’ verb is passive voice (e.g. “Grandma was calling.”). In the second example, the subject (Grandma) is preforming the action. This is an example of past progressive tense and is not considered passive voice.

Still unsure what is considered passive voice? Try the Zombie test. If you can add the phrase “by zombies” after the verb and the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive voice. The sentence “Every friday he gets paid by Zombies” makes grammatical sense where “Grandma was calling by zombies” does not.

To get started enter your text in the Passage to be Analyzed box. If you want to leave a passive construction in the text, you can dismiss the warning by clicking on it in the Passive Voice Tab.

Have your own website? Now you can use the Site Thin Content Checker to analyze the content of each page on your site with the Passive Voice Detector, as well as and other Writing Assistance Tools.

All English sentences use either active voice or passive voice.
Most sentences are in active voice. This is the type of sentence you will learn first in English classes.
In active voice sentences, the subject of the sentence is the same as the main actor in the sentence.
For example, “Zak fixed the car.”
In this sentence, Zak is the actor and subject.
The actor is near the beginning of the sentence.

The basic structure for an active voice sentence is:
[subject/actor] + [verb] (+ optional direct object and other sentence parts)
Zak fixed the car.

The basic structure for a passive voice sentence is:
[subject/receiver] + [form of verb be] + [past participle of verb] (+ optional by [actor] and other sentence parts)
The car was fixed.

In passive voice sentences, the subject is the receiver of the action, not the actor.
We can change the example active voice sentence above into a passive voice sentence:
“The car was fixed by Zak.”
The subject of the sentence and receiver of fixing was the car.
The receiver is near the beginning of the sentence, and the actor, Zak, is indicated later in the sentence.
The actor can be completely absent in a passive voice sentence:
“The car was fixed.”
This ability to remove the actor from a sentence is what makes passive voice sentences useful.

When to use the passive voice

We might choose to use the passive voice when:

the actor is unknown.

you want to avoid naming the actor in order to be kind or prevent the actor from getting in trouble.

you want to emphasize the recipient of an action, and not the actor.

you want to emphasize the action and not the actor.

you are describing a general idea.

Here are example sentences for each use:

the actor is unknown –
– The store was robbed last evening around 9:20 pm. Police have not yet identified any suspects.
– The clay pot was made 700 years ago.

you want to avoid naming the actor –
– Mistakes were made.
– Incorrect information was inputted.

you want to emphasize the recipient of an action –
– Ella was given the key, not her brother.
– Josh is needed at the front desk. He’s the only person who can translate from Arabic to English for the customer who is here now.

you want to emphasize the action –
– These vegetables will be steamed, not fried.
– The boxes were moved.

you are describing a general idea –
– The rock planets of our solar system were formed over 4 billion years ago.
– In the early 1900s, music was recorded on rubber disks or wax cylinders.

How to form the passive voice

To form the passive voice, put the receiver of the action in the subject position, then add the correct form of “be” and the past participle form of the verb. The actor can be added after the word “by.”

How to fix passive voice

NOTE: The passive voice is practically never used in perfect progressive tenses, as that would introduce extra long and awkward “been being” sentence constructs:

The report has been being written by Jen. (passive voice of present perfect progressive)

The report had been being written by Jen. (passive voice of past perfect progressive)

The report will have been being written by Jen. (passive voice of future perfect progressive)

The passive voice is also almost never used in future progressive, which would create similarly awkward “be being” constructs. Future perfect with “going to be” is also avoided in speech and writing.

The report will be being written by Jen. (passive voice of future progressive)

The report is going to have been written by Jen. (passive voice of future perfect with “going to be”)

How to fix passive voice

In our previous article, ‘What is the Difference between Active and Passive Voice?’, we explained the difference between active and passive voice in academic writing. We also gave examples of passive voice that result in vague or unreferenced generalisations.

In this article, we will explain how to reconstruct sentences to switch from passive voice to active voice. We will also give some examples of passive voice used correctly.

How Do I Convert Sentences from Passive to Active Voice?

Remember, the active voice focuses on the actor and their action. Passive voice focuses on the action and sometimes obscures the actor.

To convert passive voice to active voice, reorder the sentence to focus on the actor. If the actor is not clear in the sentence, consider introducing a broad term such as ‘experts in the field’, or ‘researchers’.

Also consider starting a sentence with a reference or author’s name rather than burying these in a sentence. This can sound more authoritative and is important to ensure your sources are acknowledged clearly.

Here is a passage written in passive voice:

The strategies most effective were demonstrated to be one-to-one teaching strategies, positive teacher–student relationship and differentiation. These strategies were found to be effective in remediating underachievement in gifted students. In the study conducted by the researchers, the findings were demonstrated across two case studies. This was reinforced by other studies such as Whitmore’s.

Here is the same passage rewritten in active voice and attributing an actor to the actions:

Researchers identified that the most effective strategies were one-to-one teaching strategies, positive teacher–student relationship and differentiation. We have found that these strategies were effective in remediating underachievement in gifted students. The researchers’ findings were consistent across two case studies. Whitmore’s (1980) study corroborated the researchers’ findings.

When is Passive Voice Useful?

There are times when passive voice is not only useful but necessary in writing.

To focus on the action, rather than the actor

As we know, passive voice permits focus on the action rather than the actor. For example, in the sentence ‘The bill was passed by Parliament despite its contentious nature’ the passive voice has been used. As a result, the sentence focuses on the action of ‘the bill being passed’ rather than the actor or subject¾in this case, Parliament.

To prevent an action being attributed to an actor

Further, passive voice is often used to prevent an action being attributed to an actor or to obscure the identity of the actor. An example of this is, ‘The project was endorsed in January.’ The focus of this sentence is now that the project was endorsed, but we’re not sure who endorsed it.

To evoke curiosity

In addition to obscuring the identity of an actor, passive voice can evoke curiosity. In media reporting, you might hear the sentence ‘Shots were fired’. In this case, the passive voice adds intrigue: who fired the shots? Consequently, you are compelled to keep reading the article to determine the actor.

Further, passive voice in the example above permits an element of tactfulness in writing: the actor is not named or blamed. The event can be reported, even if the actor is unknown.

To avoid sounding repetitive

Passive voice can be used to avoid sounding repetitive. Consider again the earlier example; you can imagine how repetitive it would sound if every sentence began with ‘The researchers found …’!

To create an objective tone

We already know that passive voice puts more emphasis on what was done (the action) rather than the actor. Scientific writing often uses passive voice expressions¾‘was performed’, ‘were observed’, ‘was achieved’¾to remove the actor from the action and consequently create a more objective tone. In this way, passive voice allows the writer to create distance between themselves and what they are writing about.

We hope we’ve helped you become more aware of your own usage of active and passive voice. They both have their place in academic writing; just make sure you are using them with purpose, mindful of the effect they create.

Capstone Editing

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As a writer, you can easily find and fix passive voice in your writing to make your writing more clear and concise. Passive sentences aren’t incorrect, they often just aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts in a direct manner. Passive voice tends to be more vague and wordy, so by replacing passive sentences with active sentences you can also tighten your writing. Politicians often use passive voice to intentionally obscure the subject of the action. For example, in politics, people will often say “Bombs were dropped,” or “Shots were fired,” obscuring the subject of the action itself. Although this kind of speech is useful in politics, you probably don’t want such vague language when trying to convey your thoughts in an essay.

In an active sentence, the subject of the sentence does the action.

For example, in the active sentence “Cody loves Tiffany,” Cody is the subject doing the action and Tiffany is the object of the sentence, receiving the action. This sentence clearly describes the doer and receiver of the action in a clear and concise manner.

When using the passive voice, the object of the action becomes the subject of the sentence.

So, instead of saying the active sentence, “Scientists use calculators,” you would say, “Calculators are used by scientists.” Scientists become the subject of the verb (use), but the focus of the sentences changes from scientists to calculators. While this example is obviously much more simple than your sentences will usually be, practice with identifying and correcting instances of passive voice will make you a pro in instinctively writing in active voice.

Identifying and Revising Passive Sentences

A word search can help you uncover passive sentences.

Often, just looking for “have” and “had” or “has” in your sentences helps to identify instances of passive voice than can easily be fixed, either by exchanging them for other, active verbs or by rearranging your sentence to eliminate the need for the various conjugations of the verb “to have”completely.

For example, this passive sentence:

“In deciding whether to approve the Keystone oil pipeline, President Obama has been faced by a choice between alienating environmental advocates or causing a deep rift with Canada.”

Can easily be fixed by identifying the use of “have” and eliminating it for an active verb:

“In deciding whether to approve the Keystone oil pipeline, President Obama faces a choice between alienating environmental advocates or causing a deep rift with Canada.”