Avoid This Common Passive Voice Mistake!

Not every sentence that has a form of the verb to be is in passive voice. Are you surprised?

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #390

passive mistake

I had lunch with an old friend last weekend and we got to talking about passive voice, because that's how we roll. Something came up about verbs such as "were" and "was" that I think is confusing to a lot of people. I know it was confusing to her, and by the end of the conversation it was even confusing to me. Here's the deal: many people think any sentence that has a verb like is, was, or were is passive voice, but that's not true.

A passive sentence is when the object of the sentence gets promoted to the subject position.

Here's an active sentence:

I mailed the letter.

I is the subject, is taking the action, and is in the subject position; and the letter is the object, is being acted on, and is in the standard object position.

If you flip it around and promote the object—the letter—to the subject position before the verb, you get a passive sentence:

The letter was mailed by me.

All passive sentences have a form of the verb to be such as was or were or is in them, but not all sentences that have those verbs are passive. 

Sometimes people miss the point that the sentence must have an object (the receiver of the action) to be able to be phrased in the passive voice. If a sentence doesn't have an object, you can't move words around to make it passive. In a passive voice sentence, that object—the receiver of the action, the letter in this case—is in the subject position in the sentence.

The letter was mailed by me.

Sometimes a sentence will leave off the “by me” part, and you’ll end up with something like this:

The letter was mailed.

Notice that the receiver of the action is still in the subject position. If you’re trying to figure out whether a sentence is in the passive voice, one trick is to see if you can add ‘by so-an-so” to the end. If you can, it’s in passive voice.


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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