What is passive voice and why don’t people want me to use it?

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What is passive voice and why don't people want me to use it

I’m going to get this out of the way first: there’s nothing grammatically wrong with passive voice. And I also understand using passive voice; it can sound much more natural to a lot of people, especially because we tend to write the way we speak. However, active voice is preferable in most cases.

So what is passive voice?

Passive voice is used when the subject of a sentence accepts/receives an action, as opposed to active voice when the subject completes an action. For example:

  • Passive: “The letter was delivered.”
  • Active: “Lauren delivered the letter.”

It is easy enough to fix; just write the sentence so the subject performs the action, rather than receives it.

Now, you might be sitting there thinking, “But I didn’t even know I was using passive voice! How am I supposed to recognize it every time?”

The short answer is that there’s a good chance you won’t catch it each and every time, but there are things that can help.

By Zombies

What is passive voice and why do people frown upon its use?The “by zombies” method – created by Rebecca Johnson via Twitter – is probably the best and most fun way to catch passive voice. To use it, all you need to do is place, “by zombies,” after the verb. If you can put it there and it makes sense, voila, you have passive voice. For example:

  • “Dinner was served.”
    • “Dinner was served by zombies.”

Adding “by zombies” makes sense in this case, so we know this sentence is in passive voice.

Microsoft Passive Voice Checker

You can also turn on Microsoft’s passive voice checker by following these steps which apply to Microsoft Word 2013 (There are also steps for 2010). If your sentence is in passive voice, Word will place the green squiggly line underneath it.

Note: For readers with Microsoft Word 2016, there is currently no option to check for passive voice; however, I did read that Microsoft plans to update Word 2016 with the passive voice checker tool.

Do I always have to use active voice?

Using active voice is not a requirement by any means. (Check to see if you can find where I used it in this blog.) It is true that active voice usually sounds better, but there are times when passive voice is the best way to go.

For example, if you don’t know who the subject is or if your readers don’t need to know who the subject is, you can use passive voice.

  • “My phone was stolen.”

Saying, “Someone stole my phone,” gives the reader the same amount of information as the first sentence.

You can also use passive voice to concentrate more on the subject receiving the action.

  • “She was hit by a car.”

In both examples, consider your audience, the context, and what information you wish to share.

For more information and examples of passive voice (and when it might be most appropriate to use passive voice), be sure to check out The Writing Center at UNC Chapel Hill’s page on passive voice.

Just, as we always say, try to be mindful and consistent with your usage.

Come back next week to learn more about starting a sentence with a conjunction and check out last week’s post about infinitives. And as always, if you need help with content writing, give us a call at 888-521-3880.