You've probably heard people decry the use of the passive voice. “Avoid it at all costs!” they say. That's a little misleading. Let's look at active vs. passive voice and when to use each.
First off, let's understand what we mean when we're talking about “voice” in a passive sentence versus an active voice sentence. In this case, grammatical voice refers to the verb form used in relationship with the subject and receiver of the action.
(This should not be confused with author voice which is more about the personality and style of a writer throughout their work. That's something entirely different.)
If you're still confused, let's look at some examples that will help you see the difference, and then look at how to use each type of sentence to its best effect. Ready?
What Is Active Voice?
A sentence in the active voice has a traditional sentence structure: subject + verb + object.
Beth stubbed her toe.
John will love this pie.
People sometimes hate country music.
In each of these sentences, the subject does or performs the action of the verb, and the object of the sentence receives that action. Beth, the subject, does the stubbing. Her toe receives the stubbing (and hurts a lot).
(If this explanation is confusing, brush up on subjects and objects here.)
What Is Passive Voice?
A sentence is in the passive voice when the subject receives the action. It will feel like the subject is either delayed or missing.
Let's use the passive voice in our examples from above:
The toe was stubbed by Beth.
This pie will be loved by John.
Country music is sometimes hated.
Now, the nouns receiving the actions are the subjects of these sentences. Instead of thinking about Beth, now we're focusing on her toe. Instead of thinking about John, we're focusing on the pie. Instead of considering the opinions of some people, we're focusing on country music.
Note that in each sentence, there is a form of to be + a past participle. That's a dead giveaway that the sentence is in passive voice.
When to Use Active Voice
As a general rule, you should use active voice whenever possible. Active voice has quite a few advantages over passive voice.
It's bold. “Beth stubbed her toe” is more clear, direct, and interesting than “The toe was stubbed by Beth.” Get straight to the point and engage your readers with active voice.
It's precise. “Country music is sometimes hated” conveys less information than “People sometimes hate country music.” You could expand it to say “Country music is sometimes hated by people,” but that makes the sentence more clunky. Just use active voice. (Also, we could get more precise by sharing specifics about “people,” but that's another lesson.)
It's succinct. Sentences in active voice are often shorter than their passive-voice counterparts. Cut the fluff and tighten your prose with active voice.
When to Use Passive Voice
That said, you'll encounter occasions in your writing when the passive voice is actually a better choice than the active voice. Here are three times you should use passive voice:
1. When you don't know who did the action
If you don't know who did the action, it's difficult to use the active voice.
The plate didn't fall on its own—it was dropped on the floor.
But who dropped the plate? No one knows.
2. When the person who did the action isn't important
If it's not helpful for your readers to know who performed the action, use the passive voice and don't mention them.
In this experiment, the eggs were placed in vinegar overnight.
The experiment with the eggs is the important bit; mentioning the person who did it would be distracting.
3. When you want your readers to focus on the object of the action
If the main point of the sentence is the noun that receives the action, use the passive voice to foreground it.
All the fruit in the pantry is covered in mold.
The focus in this sentence is on the fruit, not the mold. (Although if you were standing in that pantry, your focus would probably be on the mold.)
It's a Style Choice
Ultimately, both active voice and passive voice are grammatically correct. Determining which to use comes down to your own style choices.
As you edit, consider what you want your readers to focus on and how you want them to engage with your writing. You'll find some instances where passive voice is actually the best choice.
Remember to use the passive voice in moderation, as too much of it is exhausting to read.
When do you use passive voice? Have any effective examples? Let me know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to write about a major historical event, either as an observer or an active participant. Use the passive voice in your writing to describe the action.
Post your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop here, and leave notes for your fellow writers.
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.