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Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

A lot of you have asked me to explain passive voice and how to avoid it.

By
Mignon Fogarty
Episode #232
Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

Is "To Be" a Sign of a Passive Sentence?

A lot of people think all sentences that contain a form of the verb “to be” are in passive voice, but that isn't true. For example, the sentence "I am holding a pen" is in active voice, but it uses the verb “am,” which is a form of “to be.” The passive form of that sentence is "The pen is being held by me."

Notice that the subject, the pen, isn't doing anything in that sentence. It's not taking an action; it's passive. One clue that your sentence is passive is that the subject isn't taking a direct action.

Is Passive Voice Always Wrong?

Passive voice isn't wrong, but it's often a poor way to present your thoughts.

Another important point is that passive sentences aren't incorrect; it’s just that they often aren't the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. Also, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentence.

When you put sentences in passive voice, it's easy to leave out the person or thing doing the action. For example, "Amy is loved," is passive. The problem with that sentence is that you don't know who loves Amy.

Politicians often use passive voice to intentionally obscure the idea of who is taking the action. Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mistakes were made,” when referring to the Iran-Contra scandal. Other examples of passive voice for political reasons could include “Bombs were dropped,” and “Shots were fired.” Pay attention to the news and listen for examples of passive voice.

Also, a reader named Matthew commented that businesses sometimes use passive voice. He notes that it sounds better to write, "Your electricity will be shut off," than "We, the electric company, will be shutting off your power."

Is Passive Voice Hard to Understand?

A recent study suggests that less educated people--those who dropped out of school when they were 16--have a harder time understanding sentences written in the passive voice than those written in active voice. I only had access to the press release, not the original study, but the results made it seem as if you should stick with active voice if you're writing for the general population.

Next: When You Should Use Passive Voice

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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