What Is Passive Voice and When Do You Use It?

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If there’s anything English teachers hate more than plagiarism (and they hate plagiarism a lot), it’s passive voice. Since passive voice can weaken your point and make your sentences difficult to understand, most teachers would encourage you to use active voice instead. But even the most persnickety English teacher would have to admit that passive voice is often useful — and sometimes, downright necessary. So when should you avoid passive voice, and when is it okay to use?

What Is Passive Voice?

Passive voice is a sentence construction in which the object of a sentence is the sentence’s focus. It comes before the verb and appears to perform the action, making the subject receive the action — a reversal of their typical roles.

You form the passive voice with a form of the verb to be (such as is, am, are, was, were, will be) and the past participle form of a verb. For example, the sentence “Natalie gave me a scarf” becomes “A scarf was given to me by Natalie” in the passive voice.

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Passive Voice Examples

In passive voice sentences, the subject comes after the verb (object + verb + subject), or it’s missing entirely (object + verb).

  • Your homework will be collected by the substitute teacher.
    (Subject comes after the verb; your homework is the object, since the substitute teacher collects it)
  • Katie was presented with the second-place trophy.
    (Missing subject; Katie is the object of the sentence, since she received the trophy)

Passive vs. Active Voice

If these passive sentences sound awkward to you, you’re probably more used to active voice, where the pattern is subject + verb + object.

  • Passive voice: Your homework will be collected by the substitute teacher.
  • Active voice: The substitute teacher will collect your homework.
  • Passive voice: Katie was presented with the second-place trophy. 
  • Active voice: The committee presented Katie with the second-place trophy.
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When To Use Passive Voice

Most of the time, you want to use active voice because the subject in the sentence is clear. However, there are a few times when passive voice is actually the preferable way to write. (Notice that in these examples, the subject is missing, not repositioned.)

Use Passive Voice To Focus on the Action or Object

Sometimes, the verb in the sentence is actually the most important part of the sentence. Other times, the object of the verb requires the most attention. The passive voice is preferable in these cases.

  • Darlene was asked to take on a new role on the committee. (The focus is on Darlene being asked, not who asked her.)
  • My dog was attacked outside my house. (The focus is on the attack and the dog, not the attacker.)
  • The soldiers were deployed overseas. (The focus is on what happened to the soldiers, not the people who deployed them.)
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Use Passive Voice When the Subject Is Unknown or Unimportant

When it's unclear who is performing the action, you can use the passive voice. You can also use passive voice if the result is more important than the person performing the verb.

  • Ten thousand dollars was donated to the children’s hospital. (We don’t know who donated it.)
  • I was promoted to senior vice president. (It doesn’t matter who promoted me.)
  • Half of my department was fired. (It doesn’t matter who fired them.)

Use Passive Voice When You Can Assume the Subject’s Identity

It can be acceptable to use the passive voice when it's safe to assume (or obvious) who is carrying out an action.

  • Kelly was given her annual eye exam. (The eye doctor probably gave the eye exam.)
  • The construction project was finished on time. (The construction crew probably finished the project.)
  • My rent was increased by ten percent. (My landlord probably increased my rent.)
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Use Passive Voice in Public Statements or Rules

Statements don’t always have a specific actor, but instead provide information about something that the general public can access. When the meaning you’re conveying isn’t related to the action of a particular person or group, you can use the passive voice.

  • All of her mementos can be found in the Museum of Modern History.
  • Your participation in our campaign is appreciated
  • Children must be supervised around the swimming pool.

Use Passive Voice in Academic Writing

The passive voice may also be appropriate in certain academic contexts or other formal writing. In formal research papers, especially in science disciplines, researchers generally avoid the first or second person to stay removed from the findings.

  • Twenty volunteers were asked to participate in the study.
  • The reaction was observed in several different settings.
  • Each hypothesis was recorded in the lab report.
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How To Spot the Passive Voice

How can you tell if you’re reading or using the passive voice? Several sentence constructions could be considered passive voice (including that one).

Tense

Formula

Example Sentence

Past Simple

was/were + past participle

All her laundry was folded.

Past Continuous

was/were being + past participle

Her laundry was being folded by the maid.

Past Perfect Simple

had been + past participle

Her laundry had been folded earlier.

Present Simple

am/is/are + past participle

The hedges are trimmed weekly

Present Continuous

am/is/are/is being + past participle

The hedges are being trimmed today.

Present Perfect Simple

has/have been + past participle

The hedges have been trimmed already.

Future Simple

will be + past participle

She will be given her award on Saturday.

Future Continuous

will have been + past participle

We're late. She will have been given her award by now.

Take Another Pass at Passive Writing

If you find yourself choosing the passive voice (or you find the passive voice chosen by you) more often than these examples, don’t worry. It’s easy to change passive voice to active voice, making your writing easier to understand. However, if you really want to use passive voice to make a different point, there’s nothing wrong with it.