What is Passive Voice and How Do I Avoid It?

Grammar Tutorial

What is Passive Voice and How Do I Avoid It?

Intro

Passive voice is used by many writers, but it is found by readers to be an annoying grammatical quirk. It’s wordy and confusing. And although it is used by some writers to sound smart, usually you are just made to sound robotic and distant. How can it be avoided by you? Let that be found out by us:

Sample Problem

Passive voice and active voice are 2 methods of sentence construction. Active voice is the more common, while passive voice is essentially its reverse. A typical sentence is a subject followed by a verb followed by an object. An active sentence is one where the subject does something to the object.

So for example let’s say you’re driving late at night, and your drive your car into a tree. Everyone is OK, but when a police officer arrives, you explain to her:

I hit the tree.

This is an active sentence. You [the subject] have done something to the the tree [the object]. But let’s say instead of telling the officer “I hit the tree,” you say to her:

The tree was hit by me.

You’ve taken a sentence that was active — one in which the subject is doing the action — and made it passive by making the subject have the action done to it. You could be even shadier by simply saying, “The tree was hit,” without ever acknowledging who hit the tree.

Do you see how this sentence is backwards? The tree is having something done to it, rather than you doing something to the tree. You could even call this a grammatical method of blaming the victim. So, way to go! Not only are you a terrible driver, but now you’re prejudiced against trees too. Jerk.

Solution

Passive voice is most annoying because it’s often wordy and confusing — especially in longer sentences. It takes more words to write a sentence in passive voice than it does to write a sentence in active voice. And because the sentence is basically backwards, the reader has to think more to understand the sentence.

The easiest way to solve this problem is to simply make sure that in your sentences the subject is always the one doing the action. But I suppose that’s easier said than done.

The trick I use is to look for all instances of the verb “to be” and underline them, because passive voice often uses the verb “to be”. If you don’t remember what the verb “to be” is, here’s a list:

  • am
  • are
  • is
  • was
  • were
  • be
  • being
  • been

And don’t forget that contractions like you’re and it’s also contain the verb “to be”.

Once you’ve underlined all instances of the verb “to be”, look at each of those sentences and ask yourself, is the subject doing the action in this sentence? If it is, then you’re OK. If it isn’t, then try to rearrange the sentence so that it’s active.

So for instance, my intro to this tutorial was written entirely in passive voice (and so was that sentence):

Passive voice is used by many writers, but it is found by readers to be an annoying grammatical quirk. It’s wordy and confusing. And although it is used by some writers to sound smart, usually you are just made to sound robotic and distant. How can it be avoided by you? Let that be found out by us:

But here is how I could have written it in active voice:

Many writers use passive voice, but readers find it to be an annoying grammatical quirk. It’s wordy and confusing. And although some writers use it to sound smart, it usually just makes you sound robotic and distant. How can you avoid it? Let’s find out:

The active voice intro is shorter, clearer and sounds much more natural. And the fun part is, once you start paying attention to things like this, you’ll start to see passive voice everywhere. And now you can be that annoying friend who’s always correcting people’s grammar. Huzzah!



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