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Writing

This Guide was created as a joint project of the Academic Resource Center and the William H. Hannon Library.

Directed Learning: Passive Voice

We are often told to avoid the passive voice when writing.  This guide shows you how to make your verbs more active and less passive.

What is the passive voice?

In English, the subject (performer of the action) usually comes first in a sentence, as in 

The dog bit the man.  

We call this the active voice. When this order gets flipped, as in 

The man was bitten by the dog.

it becomes the passive voice. The performer of the action (dog) is now in the position of object – not subject.  We often make passive sentences without even realizing it.  This is particularly the case in academic settings because passive constructions tend to sound more complicated and, therefore, “more academic.”  There is some truth to this. Passive sentences are more complicated, but they can easily get in the way of clarity.  That is why we are frequently told to avoid the passive voice.

Spotting the Passive Voice

An easy way for you to spot the passive voice is to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What action is being performed?
  2. Who or what is performing the action?
  3. Is the performer the subject of the sentence?  Remember, subjects usually come first.

If you answer the last question with a “No,” then you have the passive voice. Here is an example of this in action: Wild chimpanzees in Tanzania were studied by Jane Goodall for 45 years.

  1. Studied is the action being performed.
  2. Jane Goodall is performing the action.
  3. No.  The performer is Jane Goodall and she is not the subject of the sentence. She is in the object position.  So this is the passive voice! Here is the sentence in active voice:

Jane Goodall studied wild chimpanzees in Tanzania for 45 years.

Another method you can use to spot the passive voice is to look for a “to be” verb + past participle.  For example, The dog was brought to the shelter by the mailman.  You can also look for sentences ending with “by…” which is often a sign of the passive voice.  

Exceptions: While it is true that we discourage the passive voice, there are exceptions to this rule. We might use the passive voice when it is not known who is performing the action in a sentence or if we intentionally want to shift the focus away from the performer as subject. The passive voice is the norm in the natural sciences, especially for writing lab reports.  For example:  

The experiment was carried out with a graduated cylinder. 

 It’s not important to name the researcher who carried out the experiment, so passive is better.

Other examples:  My condition is not fully known. It’s clear the performer of the action (knowing) is doctors or the medical profession.  We don’t need to state it.

Correcting the Passive Voice

The simplest way to correct the passive voice is to rearrange the sentence so that the performer of the action and the subject of the sentence are the same.  In cases where it is not clear who is performing the action, you will need to identify a new subject.  In some cases, it may be necessary to find a new verb.

Directed Learning Activity: Passive Voice

Links to Other Resources

LMU ARC

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