The passive voice is often maligned by teachers and professors as a bad writing habit. Or, to put it in the active voice, teachers and professors across the English-speaking world malign the passive voice as a bad writing habit.
What is the passive voice?
In general, the active voice makes your writing stronger, more direct, and, you guessed it, more active. The subject is something, or it does the action of the verb in the sentence. With the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by some other performer of the verb. (In case you weren’t paying attention, the previous two sentences use the type of voice they describe.)
But the passive voice is not incorrect. In fact, there are times when it can come in handy. Read on to learn how to form the active and passive voices, when using the passive voice is a good idea, and how to avoid confusing it with similar forms.
The difference between active and passive voice
While tense is all about time references, voice describes whether the grammatical subject of a clause performs or receives the action of the verb. Here’s the formula for the active voice: [subject]+[verb (performed by the subject)]+[optional object]
In a passive voice construction, the grammatical subject of the clause receives the action of the verb. So, the ball from the above sentence, which is receiving the action, becomes the subject. The formula: [subject]+[some form of the verb to be]+[past participle of a transitive verb]+[optional prepositional phrase]
That last little bit—“by Chester”—is a prepositional phrase that tells you who the performer of the action is. But even though Chester is the one doing the kicking, he’s no longer the grammatical subject. A passive voice construction can even drop him from the sentence entirely:
How’s that for anticlimactic? See More . . .
If you go in search of rules about writing, you’ll find plenty. Some rules you come across will be quite specific, like whether or not to use a comma with a conjunction, and others will be broad, like Strunk and White’s brief but vague directive to “omit needless words.” But when it comes to great writing, not all rules are created equal. In fact, some rules are really more like guidelines. Here are five pieces of good writing advice that you can and should ignore once in a while.
Use the active voice
If you’ve done even a moment’s research on how to write well, you’ve learned that you should use the active voice instead of the passive voice. It’s solid advice, if you treat it as a guideline. In general, the active voice is more direct and concise. It’s the best choice for most sentences. But there are some things that the passive voice can do better.
For example, sometimes it just isn’t important or helpful to specify who performed the action you’re talking about. Here’s an example where the passive voice is the better choice: This house was built in 1960. Rewriting the sentence in the active voice would not only require you to dig up information you may not have, it would also bog down the sentence with an unnecessary detail. A development company built this house in 1960. Does it really matter who built the house? Probably not, unless someone has specifically asked for that information. See More . . .