When to Use Passive Voice
The passive voice often gets a bad reputation in academic writing. Critics frequently tout the mantra, “Avoid passive voice!” They argue that it is weak, indirect, and confusing. Yet, when used judiciously and combined with the right transition words, passive voice can be a powerful tool in writing. It is all about understanding when and how to use it effectively. Let’s explore the concept in detail.
What is Passive Voice
In grammar, passive voice is a verb form in which the subject receives the action of the verb. It contrasts with the active voice, where the subject performs the action. Passive constructions are formed using the verb “to be” + the past participle of the main verb.
Examples of Passive Voice vs. Active Voice
Active: The cheetah chased the deer.
Passive: The deer was chased by the cheetah.
Active: The student wrote the paper.
Passive: The paper was written by the student.
Active: The cleaner will clean the room.
Passive: The room will be cleaned by the cleaner.
In the passive voice examples, the focus shifts from the doer of the action (the cheetah, the student, the cleaner) to the recipient or target of the action (the deer, the paper, the room).
The Difference Between Passive Voice and Active Voice
In English grammar, voice refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb in a sentence, specifically in terms of action. The two primary voices in English are the active and passive voices. Here is an overview of the differences between them:
- In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action denoted by the verb.
- The structure typically follows: [Subject] + [Verb] + [Object].
- Example: “The cheetah (subject) chased (verb) the deer (object).”
- In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb or receives the action.
- The agent performing the action may be omitted or introduced by the preposition “by.”
- The structure typically follows [Subject] + [form of “be” verb] + [Past Participle] + (by + [Agent]).
- Example: “The deer (subject) was chased (a form of “be” verb + past participle) by the cheetah (agent).”
Types of Passive Voice
There are several types of passive voice, each corresponding to different tenses and aspects in the active voice. Make sure to take care of first person pronouns while writing these sentences. Here are the main types:
Simple Present Passive
The action is in the present, but the doer isn’t specified.
Active: They clean the car.
Passive: The car is cleaned.
Present Continuous Passive
An ongoing action in the present, in passive form.
Active: They are cleaning the car.
Passive: The car is being cleaned.
Simple Past Passive
An action that was done in the past.
Active: They cleaned the car.
Passive: The car was cleaned.
Past Continuous Passive
An ongoing action in the past, in passive form.
Active: They were cleaning the car.
Passive: The car was being cleaned.
Present Perfect Passive
An action that has recently been completed.
Active: They have cleaned the car.
Passive: The car has been cleaned.
Past Perfect Passive
An action that had been completed before another past action.
Active: They had cleaned the car before the guests arrived.
Passive: The car had been cleaned before guests arrived.
Simple Future Passive
An action that will be done in the future.
Active: They will clean the car.
Passive: The car will be cleaned.
Future Perfect Passive
An action that will be finished at some future point.
Active: They will have cleaned the car by then.
Passive: The car will have been cleaned by then.
Modal Verbs Passive
Passive sentences that include modal verbs like can, could, should, might, etc.
Active: They can clean the car.
Passive: The car can be cleaned.
How to Avoid Passive Voice Words
Avoiding passive voice can make your writing clearer and more direct. Here are some strategies and tips, integral to the academic writing process, to help you avoid passive voice:
Understand the Difference
Active voice: The subject performs the action.
Example: I cleaned the room.
Passive voice: The subject is acted upon.
Example: The room was cleaned by me.
Identify Passive Voice
Look for forms of “to be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been) followed by a past participle (often ending in -ed). For instance, “The book was read by Mary.”
Ask, ‘Who Did What?’
To shift from passive to active, ask yourself who is performing the action. This can help you identify the true subject and rewrite the sentence.
Passive: A solution was discovered.
Active: The scientist discovered a solution.
Limit Use of “By” Phrases
Passive constructions often include “by” phrases to indicate the doer of the action. Reduce these phrases to shift to active voice.
Passive: The painting was admired by everyone.
Active: Everyone admired the painting.
Rearrange the Sentence
You can often convert a passive sentence to an active one by rearranging the order of words, placing the “actor” or “doer” of the action as the subject.
Passive: The keys were lost by John.
Active: John lost the keys.
Use Active Verbs
Opt for strong, direct verbs instead of passive constructions.
Passive: A decision was made.
Active: We decided.
Be conscious of passive voice while writing. Over time, recognising and avoiding it, along with other potential taboo words, will become second nature.
Use a Tool
Many word processing software and online grammar checkers have built-in features that can highlight passive voice.
Do Not Always Avoid Passive Voice
There are times when passive voice is appropriate or even preferable. For example, when the action is more important than the actor, or when the actor is unknown or irrelevant:
- The artifact was discovered in 1923.
- Many languages are spoken in the region.
Edit and Revise
After writing, take the time to review and identify any passive constructions. This gives you a chance to convert them to active voice where appropriate.
The more you practice rewriting passive sentences into active ones, the more naturally you will gravitate towards active constructions in your initial writing.
When and How to Use Passive Voice
Using passive voice in writing can be debated among linguists, writers, and educators. While over-relying on passive voice can make writing seem detached or impersonal, sometimes it’s appropriate and effective. Here are some instances when using passive voice might be fitting:
Emphasise the Action, Not the Actor
You might opt for passive voice if the action is more important than the person or entity performing it.
“A cure for the disease was discovered.” (It is more important that the cure was found than who found it.)
The Actor is Unknown or Irrelevant
When we don’t know who the actor is, or it is not relevant to the context.
“The pyramids were built thousands of years ago.” (We do not know specifically who built them.)
Desire for Impersonality or Formality
Scientific writing, technical reports, and some bureaucratic documents often use passive voice to sound objective or neutral.
“The experiment was conducted using a 5% saline solution.”
To be Diplomatic or Tactful
Instead of placing blame, passive voice can deflect attention from the responsible party.
“Mistakes were made.” (Instead of saying, “He/She made mistakes.”)
Varied Sentence Structure
To vary sentence structure and avoid monotony, writers might use passive voice alongside active voice.
“While the novel was universally praised, the author remained a mystery.”
In some narratives, like descriptive essays, the passive can create a particular mood or tone.
“The town was enveloped by a thick, eerie fog.”
Focus on the Recipient
In cases where the focus is on the recipient of an action rather than the doer.
“The award was received by Julia.”
Chronological or Sequential Descriptions
In procedures or sequences where the emphasis is on the process.
“The eggs are beaten until they are frothy, then sugar is gradually added.”
Use of Passive Voice Words in Academic Writing
Passive voice has a particular place in academic writing, and its usage can vary based on discipline, writing conventions, and the intended effect of the prose. In some contexts, the passive voice is favoured, while in others, the active voice is preferred. Here is an overview of how passive voice functions in academic writing:
Objectivity and Impersonality
In many scientific and technical disciplines, passive voice is used to create an objective tone, reducing the emphasis on the researcher and highlighting the process or results.
- Instead of: “We measured the pH of the solution.”
- Use: “The pH of the solution was measured.”
Highlighting Results Over Process
Passive voice can help foreground the findings or results of research over the specific actions of the researcher.
- Instead of: “I analysed the data and found…”
- Use: “The data was analysed, and it was found…”
When the ‘Doer’ is Irrelevant
Especially in lab reports or scientific writing, the specific agent (often the researcher) might be irrelevant to the audience.
- “Several tests were conducted to determine…”
In situations where assigning specific responsibility isn’t possible or desired, passive voice offers a way to discuss events or findings without naming an agent.
- “Mistakes were made in the calculation.” (This avoids pinpointing blame.)
Maintaining that voice can improve flow and coherence in a document or section where passive voice is used for valid reasons.
Some academic disciplines have established conventions for using passive voice in certain contexts, and adhering to these can make your writing more aligned with expectations.
Frequently Asked Questions
Passive voice occurs when the sentence’s subject receives the action rather than performing it. The focus shifts from the doer to the recipient of the action. Example: Active voice: “The cat chased the mouse.” Passive voice: “The mouse was chased by the cat.” In the passive, the action’s receiver becomes the subject.
The passive voice formula is:
Subject+be (in the appropriate tense)+past participle of main verb+(by + agent)
Subject+be (in the appropriate tense)+past participle of the main verb+(by + agent)
For example: Active: “She writes the book.” Passive: “The book is written (by her).”
- The object of the active sentence becomes the subject in the passive.
- Use the appropriate tense of “be” + past participle of the main verb.
- The active sentence’s subject can be included using “by” or omitted if unimportant.
- Not all sentences can be made passive.
- Passive emphasises the action or its receiver.
Active voice emphasises the subject performing an action: “The chef cooked the meal.” The subject (chef) acts. In passive voice, the action’s focus shifts to the receiver: “The chef cooked the meal.” The subject (meal) receives the action. Active voice is direct; passive voice highlights the action or its recipient.
- Subject: This is the receiver of the action (the object in the corresponding active sentence).
- Auxiliary verb (“be” verb): This verb must be in the tense that matches the action described.
- Past participle of the main verb: This represents the action.
- Agent (optional): Introduced by “by” and indicates who or what performed the action.