Passive Voice: When to Avoid It and When to Use It

From The Grammarly Blog:

The passive voice is often maligned by teachers and professors as a bad writing habit. Or, to put that 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]

Chester kicked the ball.

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]

The ball was kicked by Chester.

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:

The ball was kicked.

How’s that for anticlimactic?

When (and when not) to use the passive voice

If you’re writing anything with a definitive subject that is performing an action, you’ll be better off using the active voice. And if you search your document for occurrences 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 when the performer of the action of a sentence’s verb is very general or diffuse, is unknown, or should get less emphasis than the recipient of that action, including in certain formal, professional, and legal contexts. Here are five common uses of the passive voice:

1 In broad statements about widely held opinions or social norms

Tipping less than 20 percent is now considered rude.

The writer of this sentence is communicating that they believe enough people share the opinion that tipping less than 20 percent is rude to qualify as a consensus. In other words, the performer of the action—the people doing the considering—is so general that it can be left out of the sentence entirely.

2 In reports of crimes with unknown perpetrators or other actions with unknown doers

My car was stolen yesterday.

If you knew who stole the car, you might be closer to getting it back. The passive voice here emphasizes the stolen item and the action of theft.

The grass was cut yesterday.

The emphasis here is on the grass, which presumably is observably shorter. Someone must have cut it, but whoever it was is not the concern of this sentence.

3 In scientific contexts

The rat was placed in a T-shaped maze.

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

4 When the writer or speaker wants to avoid blame

Sometimes, someone wants to acknowledge that something unpleasant happened without making it crystal -clear who’s at fault. The classic example:

Mistakes were made.”

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

5 In any other situation where you want to keep the focus on an action and/or the recipient of the action

The president was sworn in on a cold January morning.

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.

Cleo was transformed by the experience of traveling alone in Latin America.

In this case, we know what brought about the action: It was the experience of traveling alone in South America. But the thing the sentence most urgently wants us to know is that a person, Cleo, had an important thing happen to them. So making the recipient of the action (Cleo) the subject of the sentence, using the passive voice, and tucking the performer of the action (the experience) after the action as the object of the preposition by makes sense.

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 be absent from the sentence altogether or appear in a prepositional phrase with by. Although some of these examples are formal, others show that the passive voice is often useful and necessary in daily life. In each of the sentences below, the passive voice is natural and clear for one of the reasons in the list above. 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!

Link to the rest at The Grammarly Blog