What is Passive Voice?

I received a request to explain passive voice. I am glad to help; thanks for asking for my thoughts.

Passive voice risks confusing the reader (or listener) as to the identity of the subject in a sentence. When the object of the sentence precedes the verb, the object may be incorrectly identified as the subject. Plain and simple, that is all passive voice is. Yeah, I know, that description probably sounds like so much English grammar gobbledygook.

I will start by defining the common components of a complete sentence:
Subject: this is the actor, the element that does the action of the sentence.
Verb: this is a description of the action
Object: this is the element upon which an action is taken.

In American Standard English, the order of the elements of a sentence should be Subject – Verb – Object. This is called active voice. It will require fewer words and will place emphasis on the subject, as this comes early in the sentence. Children and most adults recognize active voice from our elementary school primers (i.e. See Dick run; See Dick and Jane play together.)

Passive voice places the object before the subject and may allow the subject to be wholly omitted.

Example One
The boy kissed the girl.
Subject: boy
Verb: kissed
Object: girl

Example Two
The girl was kissed by the boy.
Subject: boy
Verb: [was] kissed
Object: girl

Notice that in both examples, it is the boy that did the kissing, and it was the girl who received the action (was kissed).

Example One places the sentence in Subject-Verb-Object order (boy kissed girl); this is active voice.

Example Two places the sentence in Object-Verb-Subject order (girl was kissed by boy); this is passive voice.

Problem With Passive Voice

I have been discussing active-passive voice since the mid 70s, and I rarely–I cannot recall an instance–hear a scholar tell me that the subject of the second sentence is boy. We seem to quickly jump to the conclusion that since girl comes at the beginning of the sentence, it is receiving the emphasis normally reserved for the subject; therefore, it is the subject of the sentence. By the way, I often teach public school teachers during my train-the-trainer classes, and they get this wrong, too…so it is no wonder that so many of us speak and write in passive voice!

Additional Examples of Active & Passive Voice

Active: The committee wrote the report.
Passive: The report was written by the committee.

Active: The batter hit the ball.
Passive: The ball was hit by the batter.

Passive: Outsourcing sales and marketing was expected to have an eventual detrimental effect on the business based upon the risk factor.

In this sentence the subject is omitted (as is a necessary comma before the terminal phrase).

Try this on for size…
Active: Based on the risk factor, management expected outsource sales and marketing efforts to have a detrimental effect on the business.

In the active sentence, the subject [actor] (management) is stated and it precedes the verb, expected.

I realize that asking you to eliminate passive voice from your verbal communication may sound draconian; however, if you are a business management or information technology major, and you do not have sufficient credits left in your degree program for me to spend the requisite time to explain when passive voice is appropriate (like right there), then it is prudent to always write in the active voice. I hope that you will one day be able to attend the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins or Iowa; until then, banish the passive, write in the active, and be understood.

I have posted a number of articles on this topic in the writing section of my student resources site. I also suggest that you read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. This simple, little book will make your verbal communication snap.

Please note that I use the word verbal in its full sense, which includes both oral and written communication.


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