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How to Identify Passive Voice

How to Identify Passive Voice - Carolyn Daughters

Passive voice is as dull as dull can be. I’ll show you how to identify passive voice and when (and when not) to use it.

As I’ve described elsewhere, arguments don’t live up to their potential when readers:

  • Need to work too hard to translate ideas into a story they can understand.
  • Need to fill in any missing ideas from their own knowledge base.
  • Judge writing to be indirect, abstract, dense, or unclear.
  • Interpret the writing in an unexpected way.
  • Distrust or become confused about the information shared.


I’m going to add one more item:

  • Fall asleep from boredom.


The easiest possible way to bore the hell out of a reader is to write in passive voice.

How to Identify Passive Voice

Verbs have two voices: active and passive. Active voice shows who’s responsible for the action. Passive voice shows that the action is being done to the subject.

Passive voice is the combination of a form of the verb “to be” and a past participle. “To be” verbs include am, are, be, been, is, was, were, and being. A past participle is the past tense of a verb, which often ends in ed or en.

In passive voice, the receiver of the action is the subject of the sentence. The agent of the action either appears in a prepositional phrase beginning with by or doesn’t appear at all.

In the examples below, the form of the verb “to be” is in blue; the agent (if included) is in italics.

Fairy tales are read by many children.

A bill was passed.

Passive voice construction is not recognized or understood.

To change passive voice to active voice, assign responsibility (an agent) for the action in a sentence. In the active voice, the agent of the action is the subject of the sentence, and the receiver of the action follows the verb. In the first example above, the agent is “children.” Situating this agent at the front of the sentence eliminates the “be” verb.

Many children read fairy tales.

Congress passed a bill.

Many writers don’t recognize or understand passive voice construction.

When to Use Passive Voice

Sometimes passive voice serves a purpose. Writers often make strategic use of passive voice to avoid naming the agent. You may decide to use passive voice when you don’t know who performed the action (“the computer was stolen”) or when you don’t want to assign (or admit) responsibility (“a decision was made to lay off half of the staff”).

“Mistakes were made” is a common enough expression in politics and elsewhere. This simultaneously ridiculous and masterful passive voice construction acknowledges mistakes without taking or attributing responsibility for them. It also doesn’t address the nature and extent of the mistakes or clarify intent. The late William Safire called the phrase a “passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.”

Writers also sometimes use passive voice to shift the focus away from the agent. You might use passive voice in technical writing when the agent of the action isn’t important. For example, say you’re describing a scientific procedure. You probably want to tell its story rather than your own.

It all comes back to this:

  1. Identify the goal you hope to achieve.
  2. Know your audience.
  3. Shape your message strategically, logically, and cohesively in order to speak directly to your audience and achieve your goal.


Learn About the Persuasive Writing Engine

Muddled thoughts make for muddled arguments. Too much or too little qualifying language makes for unpersuasive arguments. Too few characters as agents and too much passive voice make for dull reading. The solution: The Persuasive Writing Engine.

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