Passive voice inspires a lot of hand-wringing—and with good reason. Passive voice often steals the verve and humanity from a sentence. That’s why some of our most trusted writing texts advise us to avoid it. George Orwell puts it bluntly: “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” William Strunk and E.B. White explain why: “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.”
Passive voice is, quite simply, when the doer of the action is not the subject of the sentence—which is usually the most natural place for a doer of actions. Instead, the doer gets shoved to the back of the sentence, behind the preposition “by,” or pushed out of the sentence entirely.
An example of it would be, “The road is crossed by the chicken.” What’s the action? The crossing. Who’s the doer of the action? The chicken. Is the chicken in the subject slot? No, and that’s why the sentence sounds twisted up and overcomplicated. To make it active, we would just put the doer into the subject slot: “The chicken crosses the road.” You can probably hear how much clearer and more direct it is that way.
But passive voice does have purpose. If someone asks how you’re feeling, for example, you might say, “I’m disappointed.” That’s passive voice. What’s the action? The disappointing. What is the doer of the action? A bad grade? A lame party? If it mattered, you could put it in the active voice. Blank disappoints me. Instead, by leaving it out, we’ve shifted emphasis onto the person feeling disappointed. That’s what the passive voice is for—shifting the emphasis. That kind of shift is called for when the doer of the action is unimportant, and it usually sounds smooth and natural.
Other times, the doer of the action is unknown. “We’re being attacked.” Who’s the doer of the attacking? The sentence construction tells us it’s either unclear or unimportant. It’s a natural shift away from the doer and toward the recipient of the action.
There are also situations when, frankly, we want writing to lack verve and humanity. Most science writing tries to emphasizes facts by leaving them cold and sovereign, omitting human agency. Passive voice is perfect for this: “The samples were sanitized and sealed.” What’s the action? The sanitizing and sealing. Who’s the doer of the action? We might not want to say. It sounds more objective than the active voice: “I sanitized and sealed the samples.”
But in everyday writing, those situations are pretty rare, and that’s a big reason why so many amateur writers overuse passive voice—they think it makes the writing sound more formal and professional. Passive voice is overused by many amateur writers. The writing is made to sound more formal and professional, is thought by them. That’s passive voice. And as you can probably tell, it just makes the writing feel stiff and lifeless and artificial. It’s a tool that we have for a reason, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for every job. It’s important to use it intentionally and with precision, and it’s just as important to know when to put it away.
View the full series: