Passive voice and how to fix it

Learn the difference between passive and active voice, and when you should use them

Passive voice and how to fix it

Over the last couple of months, we’ve looked at common grammatical errors that often weasel their way into writers’ work. Well, we’re now moving into more of a gray zone; something that pops up regularly in prose that's not necessarily incorrect. It can, however, make your writing confusing and overcrowded with unnecessary words.

Passive voice

Passive voice is when the subject of a sentence is the thing or person upon which an action is performed; the subject receives the action. Sentences that use “by” are often written in the passive voice. Let’s have a look at an example:

The race was won by Genevieve.

We’ll use this clause as a tool to think about passive voice even more simply. Here, the emphasis is not placed on the woman, who won the race. Instead, the focus is the race itself, which just happened to be won by Genevieve. It does not preference the most important component of the sentence – Genevieve – and it uses an excessive amount of words to convey a very brief piece of information.

Active Voice

Well, how do we fix it?” I can hear you begging at your computer. It’s easy. We just use active voice. Active voice is the inverse of passive voice. Rather than focusing on the (in this case) person to whom the action has happened, sentences in the active voice emphasize the agent who performed the action. We do this, in very simple terms, by removing the “by”. Take the information that follows “by” and put it at the beginning of the sentence. This way, what was tucked away at the end of the clause becomes the focus.

Here’s how the active voice looks when applied to our example:

Genevieve won the race.

With this sentence, we have all the information we had in the first example, but in a more concise form and with Genevieve as the subject of the sentence who performed the action. Passive voice can lead to your writing being ambiguous and too long. By using the active voice, these problems are mitigated.

Use it wisely

This does not mean, however, that you should never use the passive voice; there are select circumstances when it is appropriate. Generally, there are two instances in which you might wish to employ the passive voice. The first is when you need to be discreet. Let’s say you have to send out an email that must address a recent incident at your workplace. You may not wish to name the people involved in the incident, so writing passively can focus attention on the snafu itself, rather than those in the wrong. For example:

Yesterday, a particularly long lunch was taken in our office.

Yes, there is the insinuation that the misbehavior was undertaken by people in the office, but the focus is on the ‘particularly long lunch’.

The other instance in which you might wish to use passive voice is when the event or experience is more important than who or what performed it. The example below demonstrates this:

The newspaper was bought out.

The key focus at this point is the fact that the newspaper was sold, not who bought it. Indeed, this is a punchy and concise sentence that will catch a reader’s attention.

Closing note

So, we’ve now got a better understanding of what the passive and active voices are, and when we should use them. While we did look at a couple of instances where the passive voice is preferable, it’s important to remember that generally the active voice is a better tool to make your writing concise, simple, and clear.

If ever you’re in doubt about which voice is best for your writing, try reading what you’ve got aloud. If it’s written with the passive voice and sounds wordy and confusing, your audience will probably think it reads that way too. For an even more effective trick, you can plug it into Outwrite, which will pick up on when you’ve used passive voice and offer suggestions on how to remedy it.