Passive voice is a generally disliked grammatical construction of sentences in which the “object” comes before the “subject.”
Rather than following the active voice pattern of subject + verb + object, passive voice sentences follow the pattern of object + verb + subject. In this construction, sentences are usually less interesting and harder to engage the reader with. The “active” version, subject + verb + object, is more exciting and usually considered to be better writing.
Explore Passive Voice
Definition of Passive Voice
Passive voice is defined by a specific arrangement of words in a sentence. Passive sentences follow a pattern of object + verb + subject. The most important part of the sentence (usually) is the subject and in this arrangement, it’s sent to the back of the sentence and the verb is changed to suit that arrangement. For example:
The ball was kicked by me.
In this sentence the “ball” is the object, “was kicked” is the verb, and “me” is the subject. The sentence is harder to read, more complicated, and longer than its active counterpart. As an active sentence this example reads:
I kicked the ball.
It’s much easier and more interesting to read this second version than the first. There are several more examples of passive voice sentences below. One of the easiest ways to learn the difference between active and passive voice is to read these examples, and others, and attempt to change them from passive to active. This way, a writer will be more aware of the passive voice when it’s used in their own writing and know exactly how to fix it.
Examples of Passive Voice
- The whole house was painted by him.
- The earth was hit by a meteor.
- The savannah is roamed by zebras.
- The novel was read in one day by me.
- Daughters are loved by their fathers.
- Catnip is loved by cats.
- The flowers were arranged by the florist.
Types of Passive Voice
- Short passive: the subject is unknown. For example, the phrase “a mistake is made.” There is no “subject.” The person who made the mistake is unknown.
- Long passive: the object becomes the subject of the sentence when the subject is known. For example, “Cats are hated by dogs.”
Examples of Passive Voice in Literature
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well by Maya Angelou
In this moving poem by Maya Angelou, the poet uses the passive voice in the first line of the following excerpt.
Her bones were found
round thirty years later
when they razed
her building to
put up a parking lot
She writes “Her bones were found,” rather than “____ found her bones.” In this instance, it makes sense to write the sentence in its passive form due to the fact that the person who found her bones is unknown. This is an example of the short passive voice.
Read more of Maya Angelou’s poetry.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams includes the following quote:
In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.
In these lines, he uses the passive voice to describe the universe’s creation. Rather than saying that someone “created the Universe,” he says that it “was created.” The fact that there is no cited “creator” makes the following line even more humorous, as the author intended.
Why should you avoid passive voice?
Passive voice is generally considered to be inferior to its counterpart, active voice. There are several reasons why this is the case and why, in essays and other formal pieces of writing, editors, teachers, and proofreaders will encourage writers to avoid it.
Passive voice is necessarily wordier than active voice. It uses more words to get the same meaning across and that meaning is usually less clear than it would’ve been if it had been arranged differently. With passive voice, the writer is overcomplicating their sentence in a way that’s going to be less enjoyable for the reader.
2.Complex sentence structure
This can be more or less important depending on where the sentence is being used. If it appears in a formal paper it might be more natural to read than if a reader came upon it in a magazine article. The form demands more effort from the writer and the reader. Then, in the end, it ends up sounding less logical than its counterpart.
How to Avoid Passive Voice
The two above reasons should be enough for writers to do what they can to avoid passive voice as much as possible. But, sometimes it’s difficult to rid one’s writing of this grammatical construction if the writer is used to using it. Most sentences, even if they don’t seem that way at first, have an active version. When a writer chooses to rewrite a passive sentence in its active form, they will change the verb and switch the position of the subject and object. The first of these is the most difficult. Consider the following passive sentence as an example:
The shirt was bought by me.
This sentence, which is in present perfect, is also in the passive voice. “Was bought” needs to be changed to its active version, “bought.” Therefore, the sentence will read:
I bought the shirt.
It’s also important to note that the object “shirt” moved from the beginning of the sentence to the end and the subject, “me” moved to the beginning. This arranges the sentence in the appropriate subject + verb + object pattern. As soon as a writer can recognize what’s passive voice and what’s active voice then it becomes much simpler to choose between the two. Most editors and instructors will ask writers or students to consider which one sounds better and why they used passive voice rather than active.
When to Use Passive Voice
There are a few exceptions where passive sentences can’t be changed to active. It might be the only logical way to word a sentence. The most common example occurs when the subject is unknown or is meaningless. Also, the action might be general or non-specific. There are other occasions in which the writer might choose to arrange a sentence into the passive voice when the object is more important than the subject. For example:
Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee by James Earl Ray.
Martin Luther King Jr. is the object in this sentence but is also the most important element. Therefore, it makes sense to use “was killed” rather than “killed” and to move “James Earl Ray,” the subject, to the end of the sentence.
Related Literary Terms
- Active Voice: is used in a phrase in which the subject performs an action which is then expressed through a verb.
- Omniscient Narrator: an omniscient narrator knows what’s happening at all times, and all points, of the story.
- Point of View: what the speaker, narrator, or character can see from their perspective.