Section 4.4

Passive Voice

Passive voice is not an error, but it can be awkward, especially when used to excess.

A passive-voice construction contains (1) a form of the verb to be and (2) a past participle, which is the form of a verb that would fit in the following blank: I have _____. For example: I have resigned, I have phoned, I have tried.

The following sentence is written in passive voice:

A slow recovery was predicted by some economists.

In this example, was, a form of the verb to be, is followed by the past participle predicted. As is the case with passive voice, the recipient of the action — here, the recovery — is the grammatical subject of the sentence. The agent of action — in this example, the economists — follows the verb and appears as part of a prepositional phrase beginning with by.

You can eliminate many instances of passive voice by converting sentences to active voice. In an active-voice construction, the agent of action is also the grammatical subject. The active-voice version of the sentence above is:

Some economists predicted a slow recovery.

Active voice is generally superior to passive voice because it is more direct. By changing the example above to active voice, we have reduced the number of words by two while also simplifying the sentence structure. Simpler is often better.

Nonetheless, passive voice is sometimes appropriate, as in the following cases:

  • when the agent of action is unknown

Example 1. My dog was injured last night.

  • when the emphasis is on the recipient of an action rather than on the agent of action

Example 2. Our company’s website was last updated on 1/4/14.

In Example 1, you don’t know how your dog was injured. Example 2 is also an understandable use of passive voice because the focus is on the company’s website rather than the people doing the updates.