If there is one thing most people remember from their high school or college composition classes, it's that you are not supposed to use the passive voice in your writing.
What is the passive voice, and what is it used for?
Mistakes were made.
Active and Passive Voice
Graphics for this were produced by Michelle Hansard.
In sentences written in active voice, the subject performs the action expressed in the verb; the subject acts.
In each example above, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb.
Would you like to see examples of all the verb tenses in active voice? Go to the bottom of the page.
In sentences written in passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed in the verb; the subject is acted upon. The agent performing the action may appear in a "by the . . ." phrase or may be omitted.
(agent performing action has been omitted.)
Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences, as in the last example above. Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting. In scientific writing, however, passive voice is more readily accepted since using it allows one to write without using personal pronouns or the names of particular researchers as the subjects of sentences (see the third example above). This practice helps to create the appearance of an objective, fact-based discourse because writers can present research and conclusions without attributing them to particular agents. Instead, the writing appears to convey information that is not limited or biased by individual perspectives or personal interests.
You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice. Another way to recognize passive-voice sentences is that they may include a "by the..." phrase after the verb; the agent performing the action, if named, is the object of the preposition in this phrase.
Would you like to see examples of all the verb tenses in passive voice?Go to the bottom of the page.
Choosing Active Voice
In most nonscientific writing situations, active voice is preferable to passive for the majority of your sentences. Even in scientific writing, overuse of passive voice or use of passive voice in long and complicated sentences can cause readers to lose interest or to become confused. Sentences in active voice are generally--though not always-- clearer and more direct than those in passive voice.
Sentences in active voice are also more concise than those in passive voice because fewer words are required to express action in active voice than in passive.
passive (more wordy)
active (more concise)
Changing passive to active
If you want to change a passive-voice sentence to active voice, find the agent in a "by the..." phrase, or consider carefully who or what is performing the action expressed in the verb. Make that agent the subject of the sentence, and change the verb accordingly. Sometimes you will need to infer the agent from the surrounding sentences which provide context.
Changed to Active Voice
most of the class
agent not specified; most likely agents such as "the researchers"
the CIA director and his close advisors
agent not specified; most likely agents such as "we"
Choosing Passive Voice
While active voice helps to create clear and direct sentences, sometimes writers find that using an indirect expression is rhetorically effective in a given situation, so they choose passive voice. Also, as mentioned above, writers in the sciences conventionally use passive voice more often than writers in other discourses. Passive voice makes sense when the agent performing the action is obvious, unimportant, or unknown or when a writer wishes to postpone mentioning the agent until the last part of the sentence or to avoid mentioning the agent at all. The passive voice is effective in such circumstances because it highlights the action and what is acted upon rather than the agent performing the action.
The dispatcher is notifying police that three prisoners have escaped.
Police are being notified that three prisoners have escaped.
Surgeons successfully performed a new experimental liver-transplant operation yesterday.
A new experimental liver-transplant operation was performed successfully yesterday.
"Authorities make rules to be broken," he said defiantly.
"Rules are made to be broken," he said defiantly.
In each of these examples, the passive voice makes sense because the agent is relatively unimportant compared to the action itself and what is acted upon.
Changing active to passive
If you want to change an active-voice sentence to passive voice, consider carefully who or what is performing the action expressed in the verb, and then make that agent the object of a "by the..." phrase. Make what is acted upon the subject of the sentence, and change the verb to a form of be + past participle. Including an explicit "by the..." phrase is optional.
Changed to Passive Voice
The presiding officer
In each of these examples, the passive voice is useful for highlighting the action and what is acted upon instead of the agent.
1. Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and then shifting to passive.
Unnecessary shift in voice
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered frequently.
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but they still ordered it frequently.
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students.
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him.
2. Avoid dangling modifiers caused by the use of passive voice. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.
Dangling modifier with passive voice
To save time, the paper was written on a computer. (Who was saving time? The paper?)
To save time, Kristin wrote the paper on a computer.
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, consultants were hired to break the bad news. Who was seeking to lay off workers? The consultants?)
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, the CEO hired consultants to break the bad news.
3. Don't trust the grammar-checking programs in word-processing software. Many grammar checkers flag all passive constructions, but you may want to keep some that are flagged. Trust your judgement, or ask another human being for their opinion about which sentence sounds best.
Verbs in the active voice show the subject acting. Verbs in the passive voice show something else acting on the subject. Most writers consider the active voice more forceful and tend to stay away from passives unless they really need them.
ACTIVE: Tim killed the chicken hawk.
PASSIVE: The chicken hawk was killed by Tim.
Most verbs we use are in the indicative mood, which indicates a fact or opinion:
·He was here.
·I am hungry.
·She will bring her books.
Some verbs are in the imperative mood, which expresses commands or requests. Though it is not stated, the understood subject of imperative sentences is you.
· Be here at seven o'clock. (Understood: You be here at seven o'clock.)
· Cook me an omelette. (Understood: You cook me an omelette.)
· Bring your books with you. (Understood: You bring your books with you.)
When verbs show something contrary to fact, they are in the subjunctive mood.
When you express a wish or something that is not actually true, use the past tense or past perfect tense; when using the verb 'to be' in the subjunctive, always use were rather than was:
· If he were here... (Implied: ...but he's not.)
· I wish I had something to eat. (Implied: ...but I don't.)
· It would be better if you had brought your books with you. (Implied: ...but you haven't brought them.)
INDICATIVE: I need some help.
IMPERATIVE: Help me!
SUBJUNCTIVE: If I were smart, I'd call for help.
Present or Action Condition
· I hear you.
·Here comes the bus.
· There are thirty days in September.
Non-action; Habitual Action
· I like music.
· I run on Tuesdays and Sundays.
· The train leaves at 4:00 p.m.
Activity in Progress
Verbs of Perception
· I am playing soccer now.
· He is feeling sad.
· We visited the museum yesterday.
·The weather was rainy last week.
Past Action that took place over a period of time
Past Action interrupted by another
·They were climbing for twenty-seven days.
·We were eating dinner when she told me.
With will/won't — Activity or event that will or won't exist or happen in the future
With going to — future in relation to circumstances in the present
· I'll get up late tomorrow.
· I won't get up early
· I'm hungry.
· 'm going to get something to eat.
With verbs of state that begin in the past and lead up to and include the present
To express habitual or continued action
· He has lived here for many years
·He has worn glasses all his life.
With events occurring at an indefinite or unspecified time in the past — with ever, never, before
· Have you ever been to Tokyo before?
Present Perfect Progressive
To express duration of an action that began in the past, has continued into the present, and may continue into the future
·David has been working for two hours, and he hasn't finished yet.
To describe a past event or condition completed before another event in the past
In reported speech
·When I arrived home, he had already called.
·Jane said that she had gone to the movies.
To express action that will be completed by or before a specified time in the future
· By next month we will have finished the job.
· He won't have finished his work until 2:00.
· The company ships the computers to many foreign countries.
· Computers are shipped to many foreign countries
· The chef is preparing the food.
· The food is being prepared.
· The delivery man delivered the package yesterday.
· The package was delivered yesterday.
· The producer was making an announcement.
· An announcement was being made.
· Our representative will pick up the computer.
· The computer will be picked up.
· Someone has made the arrangements for us.
· The arrangements have been made for us.
· They had given us visas for three months.
· They had been given visas for three months.
· By next month we will have finished this job.
· By next month this job will have been finished.
· You can use the computer.
· The computer can be used.