Writes of Passage – Passive Voice

What is passive voice? How can you tell if you’re writing in passive voice and how can you avoid it?

Passive voice is a grammatical construction in which the noun of the sentence is the subject rather than the object. It is the opposite of active voice, which is more widely preferred.

How can you tell if you’re writing in passive voice or in active voice? I came across an amusing trick on Facebook which easily helps to identify if you’re writing in passive voice. You can read the article here. It isn’t a very long one, but if you still don’t feel like reading, the gist is this: if you can add ‘by zombies’ following the verb in a sentence, you’ve got passive voice. Here’s an example:

Passive: John was eaten by zombies.

Active: Zombies ate John.

Notice the difference? In the passive example, John is the object and the zombies are the subject(s), when it should be the other way around. In sentence structure, objects do and subjects are done upon. In the active example, the zombies are rightfully the object(s) and John is rightfully the subject. Since John is being eaten, he’s the subject, but when written in passive voice, that almost becomes unclear. This is why passive voice is frowned upon.

That last sentence was written in passive voice; I didn’t identify who frowns upon the use of passive voice (proofreaders, class instructors, etc.), and that can lead to confusion. However, if the person or thing responsible for the action in a sentence is unknown, then passive voice is perfectly acceptable. If the actor is known, but irrelevant, then passive voice is acceptable, as well. The University of Toronto’s website offers some excellent advice as to when to use and avoid passive voice.

Once you become aware of the difference between active and passive voice, and get the hang of it, the rest should follow. It will then become second nature, and if it doesn’t, or you’re struggling with it, make sure to consult the undead to see where you stand! 🙂


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