The passive voice is generally considered such a curse to writers that there now exist apps specifically built to locate and underline it with bright red squiggly lines. Think about that! Teams of developers creating tools that are devoted to automatically fixing a simple writing habit!
One of the first pieces of advice you’ll receive when you try to improve your writing skills is “Don’t use the passive voice.” While there is a lot of helpfulness in this advice for a new writer, it shouldn’t be treated as an eternal truth.
The passie and active voices emphasize the importance of a noun or pronoun in a sentence. Depending on your intent, it may actually be beneficial to you to use the passive voice.
Here is a quick example of the active voice:
placed the most important words at the start of the sentence.
And here is an example of the passive voice:
The most important words
were placed at the start of the sentence by the writer.
A casual reader might not be able to easily explain why one style of writing feels different than the other, but they will notice it. The words used at the start of a sentence are immediately translated in our brains as the most important words — the words we should pay attention to right away.
Sentences are — very generally speaking — made up of subjects and verbs.
In the case of the active voice, general sentence structure is “subject
verbs” or “subject
verbs something or someone.” This is a very direct way of writing. It cuts out needless words and directs the reader’s focus immediately to who or what is performing an action. It’s very useful for a new writer to use this voice, as it simplifies the writing and makes their point come across much more easily. It front-loads the actors and action of a sentence, pulling the reader along as the paragraphs fly by.
Contrast this with the case of the passive voice, whose general sentence structure is “subject
is verbed” or “subject
is verbed by something or someone.” The passive voice makes liberal use of forms of the phrase “to be,” such as is, were, was, or will be. It also takes advantage of past participles. A new writer might not understand exactly when this type of voice should be used and when it should be avoided. There is a little more nuance to the passive voice than there is to the active voice.
This is why you see “Don’t use the passive voice!” as one of the first bits of advice given to new writers. It’s an easy win the writer can achieve without too much thought or effort.
It’s like a new home cook being told to season everything with salt and pepper. Technically, you don’t want to season everything with salt and pepper — but you almost always do, so adopting it as a universal rule can make terrible cooking not so terrible more often than not.
When to use the passive voice
“OK, cool. I get it. I can use the passive voice… Sometimes. But when should I use it?”
Well, let me give you a few basic examples and a handful of reasons that you might choose to use the passive voice:
- “I’m sorry, but the sandwiches have been eaten.” When you want to express that something has happened, but don’t care all that much about who or what is responsible for what happened.
- “The defendant was to be tried in a court of law.” Often, formal writing, including writing involving legal matters, tends toward the use of the passive voice.
- “Kids like to be taken to the amusement park.” I find broadly-generalized statements about populations like this to be a great use of the passive voice.
- “The organization was founded in 1967.” Simple statements describing objective facts and time periods are often a good candidate for the passive voice, as well.
Context is everything when choosing whether or not to use the passive voice in your writing. While the above are just a small selection of potential uses of the passive voice, doing deeper dives into the topic can yield some surprisingly useful knowledge and advice.
And it never hurts to just read your writing out loud to yourself. If your writing feels compelling when spoken, you are likely using both types of voice appropriately for your style and goals.
To close this article out, take a moment to look at the subtitle all the way up at the top. Its first sentence is written in the passive voice. If I were to re-write it as
Generic, universal ‘advice’ doesn’t have to limit your words
would it have had the same impact or feeling attached to it? Focusing on your words instead of advice directs our attention to what I want us to focus on — your words. The advice affects your words, sure — but it isn’t the primary focus of the article. So, I felt that the passive voice was appropriate, and it left the option for a great closing statement, as well!