Passive voice is to be avoided

Writing teachers, editors and agents all rant about not writing in the passive voice. Here’s the down and dirty about passive voice. What is it? How do you identify it, and when it’s OK to use it.

What is passive voice?

confused readerHere are two sentences, which one is using the passive voice?

Jon loves Lisa.

Lisa is loved by Jon.

The second sentence uses passive voice. The object of the sentence – Lisa, is not doing the action in the sentence – loving. In passive voice, the object of the action gets placed where the subject should be. This is not grammatically incorrect. Subject + verb = sentence. Passive voice is a stylistic choice.

The problem with passive voice in your writing is that it can obscure who is doing the action, why the subject is doing the action, and how.Writing in active voice removes ambiguity and helps readers connect with your characters.

Recognizing Passive Voice

There’s this misconception that all instances of the verbs ‘to have’ and ‘to be’ are passive voice. This isn’t true. These verbs can perform valid functions within an active sentence. However, one easy way to recognize passive voice is to scan your work for ‘to be’ + a verb with an ‘ed’ ending.

Jon is loving the new car – active voice. The subject is doing the action.

The new car is loved by Jon – passive voice. The subject isn’t taking any action.

Passive voice often increases your word count, it’s vague, and it can be awkward.

Passive voice can be vague.

Lisa is loved. Passive voice. Who loves Lisa? Why should the reader care? Don’t know.

Passive voice is useful when it’s important to obscure the doer of the action to change the emphasis, or if the reader won’t care who’s doing the action. Politicians are famous for using passive voice to be vague. “Mistakes were made.” This statement by Ronald Reagan is grammatically correct, but tells the reader very little.

The declaration of independence was signed in 1776. Passive voice, but I wanted to emphasize the signing. The declaration of independence was signed by Thomas Jefferson. This is also grammatically correct, but not the point I was trying to make.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

7 comments on “Passive voice is to be avoided

  1. I recently got the first 25 pages of my MS back, and there was some passive voice I hadn’t even thought of, including over use of ‘was’ and ‘had been.’ The proofer did a great job of catching that. They were small details, but make all the difference.

  2. Working to avoid passive voice creates stronger writing. I try to use action verbs that avoid the “to be’s” but I also need to not beat myself up about it. It’s easier to see with critique, like Stacy said.

  3. I’m having trouble telling if your use of the passive voice in the title of this post was intentional or not, but it is hilarious nonetheless.

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