The Passive Voice: Good or Bad?

We learned in school that good writers should avoid using the passive voice.  Yet this is one grammar lesson in particular that we all seemed to have forgotten . . . or never really understood in the first place.

Microsoft Word’s grammar check consistently places green squiggly lines underneath places where we have used the passive voice.  Double-clicking on those errors prompts a “Passive Voice (consider revising)” message from Word's grammar checker.

Often, this error is not understood, and therefore we ignore it.  It’s time to set the record straight.

We decided to take Microsoft up on its suggestion, and to try "consider revising". 

Subjects and Objects

Understanding the difference between objects and subjects will help you understand the passive voice.

This can be a tough challenge even for native English speakers. 

The key lies in the action of the sentence:   knowing who/what is performing (subject), and who/what is affected (object).    

Take the following example sentence:

Sam baked the cake.

S (Subject) = the person, place or thing that the sentence is about.  

                       Sam is the subject, because he performs the action.

O (Object) = the person, place or thing which is affected by an event or action.

                       The cake is the object, because it is affected by the action.


The Normal Order of Things:  (S-V-O)

To tell the difference between S (subjects) and O (objects), it can be helpful to know that English is an SVO language.  This is a sort of code to describe the order of things.


In English, in most sentences, the order is:  Subject-Verb-Object, or SVO.

Sarah traveled to Spain.
Sarah traveled Spain
Dan throws the ball.
Dan throws the ball
What do you eat for breakfast? you eat

SVO Languages (a partial list): 

English, Kashmiri, Arabic, Finnish, Russian, Chinese, Bulgarian, Khmer, Luganda, Yoruba, Quiche, Javanese, Malay, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Swahili, and Hebrew


Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Danish, Norweigan, etc.) use the SVO format, but they switch to VSO when forming a question.


Romance languages (French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, etc.) mainly use the SVO format but have some exceptions.


Russian uses all possible formats - (SVO, OVS, SOV, OSV, VSO, VOS).  German is SVO/VSO. 


Basically, you can see that depending on your native language, adjusting to SVO format can be a big adjustment.  This can lead to grammatical problems, and over-usage of the passive voice.  It is also tricky for even native-English speakers, since most people don't "think" about the order in which things come in sentences. 


Star Wars fans? 

Here's another way of thinking about it, for native-English speakers.  If you've seen the movie Star Wars - think of how Yoda speaks.  He inverts the order of subjects and objects, and his sentences are a little jumbled and hard to understand at first.


Yoda Quote:   "Named must your fear be before banish it you can."


Yoda uses a different order than regular SVO English.  He uses a mix of patterns, including VOS.  Either way, Yoda's words are a bit confusing at first.  They require additional thought.  You don't want the same for your writing; the goal is clarity and boldness, not (*link) ambiguity or lengthy contemplation. 


This is where "voice" comes in.


Voice:  Focus on the Action!

The “voice” of a sentence describes the sentence’s action, as either passive or active. 


Remember, as we saw above, English uses the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order, or pattern.


Active Voice = active subject 

In an active sentence, a subject performs a verb which affects an object.  (SVO-order;  correct English)


Passive Voice = passive (inactive) subject

In a passive sentence, an object receives a verb's action, which is performed by a subject. (OVS-order; passive English)




        Sam baked the cake.

In this sentence, the subject is Sam. 

We know this from paying attention to the action: The subject (Sam) performs the action (baking), on the object (the cake).

This is a standard, active sentence.  



The cake was baked by Sam.
Here, the subject/object roles are reversed.  Now, the subject is the cake.
We know this because the sentence is about the cake.
Because the subject is being acted on (by the object), instead of being the acting agent, this sentence is passive.

What the Passive Voice Looks Like

The passive voice is formed by joining:

a form of the auxiliary  “to be”     +      Past Participle of Verb
            (am, is, was, were, are, or been)

This is not the only way to spot the passive voice.  There may be a “by the . . .” phrase following the verb.  

Here are some examples of sentences in both active and passive forms:

Dan kicks the ball.
The ball is kicked by Dan.
This store sells chocolate.
Chocolate is sold by this store.
My friends gave me a present.
A present was given to me by my friends.

Notice that the active sentences follow the SVO pattern, while the inactive sentences show a OVS pattern, like in the "A cake was baked by Sam" examples above.


3 Steps for "Activating" the Passive Voice:

1.)  LOCATE the agent

AGENT =  the person/thing in the phrase/sentence getting something done; the actor, or the performer of the verb


2.)  RELOCATE the agent to the beginning of the phrase/sentence a.k.a. give the agent its proper, "subject" status.  (This will automatically give the sentence its SOV order.)


3.)  ADJUST the rest of the sentence to make sure it works and is grammatically correct.  You may have to fix the verb forms a bit.



1.            Passive:      Named must your fear be before banish it you can.

     Active:         You must name your fear before you can banish it.

Agentyou  (See steps 1-3 above for how we activated Yoda's quote!)


2.            Passive:             The painting was created by a very popular artist


               Active:                A very popular artist created the painting.

3.            Passive:    This fossil was discovered by a scientist many years ago.

               Active:        A scientist discovered this fossil many years ago.                                             



                                  Many years ago, a scientist discovered this fossil.

Is the Passive Voice Always Bad?

Short Answer:          No.  But it can be.

Long Answer:    According to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the passive voice should not be entirely discarded, because it is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”  


When It's O.K. to be Passive:

  • Unknown Subject – We simply don't know who/what performed the action
ο This book was written many years ago.    
ο Many factors were taken into account.
ο The best cheese is made in France.
  • Writer's Discretion - According to the intended purpose or meaning of the sentence, a writer may choose to focus that sentence on a particular word/phrase/object. 
ο Many diseases remain undiagnosed and untreated, due to poor healthcare.
ο  There are not enough doctors to diagnose and treat everyone. 
The first sentence concerns the diseases; the second is about doctors.  It depends on what the author wishes to emphasize.  This depends on the purpose, or intention of the writing.

Summary:  Why Is It Important to Understand The Passive Voice?


Why is "voice" such an important part of English grammar?  And why should we start paying more attention to "passive voice" error messages? Why do those messages even exist??


In many situations, to write well is to clearly communicate your thoughts to someone else.  Unless you are writing poetry, in your diary, or some other creative type of writing - your goal should and probably is so that others read and understand it.  The passive voice confuses traditional object/subject classifications.  It can cause readers to become unsure as to who is acting, and who is affected.  This prevents you from achieving the clearest form of communication - which is usually the goal!


Understanding the passive voice requires you to understand the active voice.  And this requires you to understand the difference between subjects and objects.  


Yes, the passive voice is sometimes desirable, and occassionally necessary. (See the section above, "When It's O.K. to be Passive")

However, most writing authorities, including WhiteSmoke, agree that the active voice is both more engaging and easier to read than passively-constructed writing. 


(*WhiteSmoke, the writing software, spots the passive voice and offers "active" suggestions!)