Passive voice isn’t considered an actual error in writing; however, it can have pretty far-reaching effects on the clarity of your writing. If you’ve ever reread through an email you sent or through a blog post you wrote and noticed that your writing has a muddled or congested feel, you might have a problem with passive voice.
Most clear writing uses active voice, and readers are more accustomed to reading active constructions. There are some circumstances under which passive voice is acceptable or even preferable, but the majority of your writing should be in active voice if you want it to be clear and if you want your sentences to flow well.
What are active and passive voice?
In active voice, the focus of the sentence is the subject — the person or thing doing the action. The following is an example of what an active construction looks like:
“Mulder and Scully searched for evidence of alien life.”
Mulder and Scully are the subjects of the sentence — they are the ones performing the action (‘searching’) — and they are also the focus of the sentence.
In a passive construction, the subject often becomes peripheral. Consider the following:
“Evidence of alien life was searched for by Mulder and Scully.”
While the sentence still contains the same information, the focus has shifted to ‘evidence of alien life,’ the direct object of the sentence, rather than the subject. Often passive constructions completely omit the subject:
“Evidence of alien life was searched for.”
This can lead to vague and ambiguous sentences that inhibit the reader’s ability to easily move through and digest the information.
Are there easy identifiers for recognizing passive voice?
A definitive way to recognize passive voice is the following formula:
‘To be’ verb + past participle = passive voice
This doesn’t, however, mean that every use of a ‘to be’ verb is going to indicate passive voice, so you still need to look at sentences carefully to make sure that they meet both criteria.
A simpler test to check whether a sentence is in passive voice is to see if you can add something like ‘by aliens’ at the end. If you can, it’s a passive construction. For instance, examine the following example:
“The Earth was invaded.”
You can easily add ‘by aliens’ to the end, which indicates that it’s written in passive voice.
Does passive voice have a place?
There are circumstances that justify the use of passive voice. For example, sometimes you may want to obscure the subject on purpose. Consider the following:
The reports on alien activity were sent late.
Writing this as a passive construction makes it so that it’s unclear who sent the reports. That’s pretty beneficial since they were late, right? Passive voice allows you to leave the subject out in cases where you either don’t want to add the subject or it’s unnecessary to add the subject. Similarly, passive voice is often used in scientific writing, where the person performing the action isn’t as important as what’s being done.
That being said, active constructions are usually clearer and better for your run-of-the-mill writing needs.