While active voice is generally preferred in most writing assignments, there are times when the passive voice is more appropriate. Emphasis is the primary difference between active and passive voice. Active voice emphasizes who is doing an action, while passive voice emphasizes the action itself (rather than the actor). Discover when to use passive voice, including the situations in which it is most appropriate and why.
Passive Voice: When to Use It
To Focus Attention on the Action Rather Than the Actor
When an element is being acted upon, the passive voice steps up to the plate. Passive voice should be used when it’s important to emphasize the action being performed rather than who is doing it.
- Suzy asked Darlene to take on a new role on the committee. (active voice)
- Darlene was asked to take on a new role on the committee. (passive voice)
If what matters is that Suzie is the one who asked, then active voice would be appropriate. However, if the purpose is simply to notify people that Darlene has been asked to do this, then passive voice would be a better option. The trick to the passive voice here is that it emphasizes the person being asked rather than the person doing the asking.
When the Actor Is Unknown Actor
When it's unclear who is performing the action, it is necessary to use the passive voice.
- My rent has been increased at an exponential rate.
In this example, the increase is not attributed to a specific entity or actor. It could be an individual landlord, it could be a rental company, a conglomerate that owns multiple properties or other people or entities. That information is not known, so it's appropriate to use the passive voice.
When a Known Actor’s Identity Can Be Assumed
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 being given her annual eye exam.
Kelly’s neighbor or podiatrist would not give her an eye exam. Presumably, only Kelly's optometrist or ophthalmologist would do this. So, passive voice can be acceptable in this example.
When the Actor Has Recently Been Specified
If someone or something has already been mentioned, it can be advisable to use the passive voice the next time the topic comes up.
- Mrs. Haynes is my English teacher. Character analysis will be discussed in our next class.
Since the English teacher’s name was just stated, it doesn’t have to be repeated in the very next sentence or even in the next few sentences. Using passive voice in this case helps keep your writing concise and avoid the redundancy of repeating an actor’s identity multiple times.
When the Actor’s Identity Doesn’t Matter
In some instances, it doesn't matter who the source of the action is. When the identity of who performed the action is inconsequential, it does not need to be mentioned.
- I'm carrying this box of my stuff because I have been let go.
The identity of the person who notified this individual that he or she is no longer employed is not relevant to this statement.
When Referencing the General Public
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, passive voice can be acceptable.
- All her mementos can be found in the Museum of Modern History.
In this case, anyone who visits the specified museum can access the mementos. That’s why passive voice is appropriate here.
In Academic Writing
The passive voice may also be appropriate in certain academic contexts or other formal writings. In formal research papers, for example, writers generally avoid the first or second person to stay removed from the findings.
- Twenty volunteers were asked to participate in the study.
If you're conducting an official scientific study for submission to an academic journal, it wouldn't be acceptable to write, "We asked 20 volunteers to participate in the study." When eliminating words like, "I," "me" or "we," it becomes natural to use the passive voice.
How to Form the Passive Voice
Passive voice wording can be formed in multiple ways.
Using To Be Verbs
The passive voice utilizes "to be" verbs a lot. These are verbs like "am," "is," "are," "was," and "were." These "to be" verbs link up with the participial form of a verb. This gives us constructs like "was being" or "is being." Another popular verb construct within the passive voice is "have been.”
"By" is another favorite in the passive voice. If we know who or what is carrying out the action, "by" typically slips into the sentence to indicate the acting party. For example, "All her laundry was folded by the hotel staff."
Using Verb Tense
Verb tense impacts how passive voice statements should be formed. Use the formulas detailed below to construct sentences in passive voice based on whether the verb is past, present or future tense.
was/were + past participle
All her laundry was folded.
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.
am/is/are + past participle
The hedges are trimmed weekly
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.
will be + past participle
She will be given her award on Saturday.
will have been + past participle
We're late. She will have been given her award by now.
It's important to make a note about infinitives at this point. Basically, infinitives are verbs with "to" in front of them. Not every infinitive indicates the passive voice, but they do work hand in hand quite often. For example, "The garbage needs to be taken to the dump," or, "Are you going to be fired?"
Remain Cautiously Active
The general belief about passive voice is that it’s best to avoid it if active voice can be used. Even though active voice is usually preferable, this doesn't negate its counterpart. Certain instances require passive voice. The more you scrutinize these two voices, the more they'll come naturally to you, helping you avoid passive voice misuse. For further study, explore some examples of active and passive voice.