Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2012. Do not copy without permission.
Passive Voice

Okay, everybody always tells you that passive voice is bad, and yet you read it (and hear it) every single day. Itís hard to know that youíve used passive voice if your construction sounds pretty much like any other ordinary sentence, and, after all, why is there passive voice out there, if youíre not supposed to use it?


Active voice is when the subject of the sentence performs the action on the object as described by the verb. The subject of the sentence (in both grammatical and literal terms) is the main topic, and is typically a pronoun, a proper noun, a regular noun, or an article and a noun. The object of the sentence is what the subject did the verbís action on, to, or with. In these example sentences, the subject is to the left of the italicized verb.


The companybought Purple People Plotters for a lot of money.

Thirty-seven people attended the music conference.

Mergatroyd succeeded in his genealogy search.


In passive voice, the verb and the object of the sentence act upon the subject. Sometimes, this involves flopping the subject to the other side of the verb to make an active voice passive.


Purple People Plotters were bought by the company for a lot of money.

The music conference was attended by thirty-seven people.

The genealogy search by Mergatroyd was successful.


All of these sentences mean the same thing as the first examples, but the focus has changed. The subject of each passive sentence is the same as its active version, but now thereís more than one verb, or the subject seems to be the activity rather than the active thing itself. In the case of the last sentence, a noun (search) had to be made into a verb to make the sentence work.


You might notice that all of these passive-voice sentences include a form of the verb to be. That doesnít mean that using the verb to be makes a sentence passive, but it is something to troll for when youíre trying to tidy up. Another thing to watch out for is the presence of two verbs (the most likely culprits are usually have and forms of to be) and the word by.


Occasionally, passive voice is useful. You might want to deflect an accusation, you might not need to name the subject when the subject is obvious, unimportant, or unknown, or maybe you want save the subject for the last part of the sentence or avoid mentioning the subject altogether. The passive voice is effective in such circumstances because it highlights the action and what is acted upon rather than the thing performing the action. But using it unknowingly can take all the vigor out of your words.


In the second group of examples above, the first two sentences sound a little negative. The company perhaps spent too much money or more than they needed to spend on those Plotters, and either 37 people were more than expected or only 37 people attended the conferenceóeither way, itís not good. In the third example, the point of the sentence was that a genealogy search happened, not who did it or whether anything came of it.


You can see that using passive voice has to do with intentionówhat do you mean the reader to understand behind the actual words. If you have no subtle meaning to impart, use active voice. If you have some agenda beyond just imparting information, then maybe you do want passive voice. Just donít use it by accident and you wonít get edited without mercy.

There are a couple of other things to watch out for: donít switch from active to passive mid-sentence, and beware of dangling modifiers.


The frog leapt onto the leaf but the leaf was bent by the frogís weight.

The frog leapt onto the leaf but the frogís weightbent the leaf.


You can make sense of both versions, but the second sentence is clearer, partially because both halves of the sentence follow the same construction, partially because the second half lost its passive voice, and partially because the second sentence is more direct (and shorter).


Dangling modifiers leave the reader wondering what happened. A dangling modifier tells you something that is supposed to modify or explain the main action in some way, but doesnít seem to have the same subject if you scrutinize the sentence.


Partly to save time, the computer was logged on overnight.

Intending to compliment the chef, the meal was eaten hastily.


Who was saving timeóthe computer? Who intended to compliment the chef? Who ate the meal? These sentences donít have a subject. They should be:


To save time in the mornings, he left his computer logged on overnight.

They ate the meal hastily and intended to compliment the chef. (Or, Intending to compliment the chef, they ate the meal hastily.)


Finally, donít trust the grammar checking devices on your word processor. They often correctly flag that something is passive voice, but they canít help you decide if it should remain that way or not.