Daily Tips & Tricks for Web Enthusiasts

Recognize & Avoid Passive Voice

Writing in passive voice can make your writing vague, awkward, longer than necessary. Passive voice also increases the chance that you’ll exclude important information. Today I’m going to show you how to both recognize passive voice and fix it when you find it.

First, let’s talk about the opposite of passive voice: active voice. A sentence written in active voice has the subject performing the action. Here’s an example of a sentence written in active voice:

Justin is teaching you how to recognize passive voice.

That sentence is clear, easy to read, and simple to understand. In this sentence I’m the subject, the action I’m performing is teaching, and you are being taught.

Now let’s look at the passive voice version:

You are being taught to recognize passive voice.

When using passive voice the subject of the action gets promoted to the subject of the sentence. This makes the sentence sound a little strange, and makes it a bit harder to parse and understand. But the problems don’t end there!

Using passive voice increases your risk of leaving out vital information. That’s what happened above. Who’s teaching you? Where did I go? You are now the subject of the sentence, which means forcing the previous subject out. If we try to work me back in, the awkwardness increases:

You are being taught to recognize passive voice by Justin.

That sounds horrible, and it’s even harder to read.

Now, it’s important to understand that passive voice itself is not wrong. In some specific situations it’s actually intentional or preferred. Here are some cases where passive voice makes sense:

  • When the identity of the subject is unknown. This is often the case when writing about crime, or when something anonymous happens. “The laptop was stolen.” “$300 was donated.”
  • When the identity of the subject is not relevant in the current context. “The rocket launch was successful.” “A new species has been discovered.”
  • When the identity of the subject is being concealed on purpose. Politicians and businesses use passive voice to conceal information or avoid blame. “Mistakes were made.” “The asset was secured.” “Your server will be offline for maintenance on Tuesday.”

If you find yourself in any of these situations passive voice might actually be the right choice. That said, it’s important to recognize these situations as what they are: exceptions. Most of the time, active voice is the best choice.

So, if you write a sentence and it sounds a bit off, ask yourself if the subject is taking the action involved. If the subject isn’t taking the action, but is being acted upon, you’ve likely got a case of passive voice.

To fix passive voice, first determine who or what is taking the action. Now rewrite your sentence so they are the subject. You should end up with a better sentence that’s easier to understand, and will often be shorter to boot!