What is Passive Voice and Why Should You Avoid It?

There’s a good chance that at some point during your writing career, you’ve been told that using passive voice is a decidedly bad thing and should be avoided at all costs. But how well do you really understand the reasoning behind this rule?

What is passive voice?

The way a sentence is worded determines whether it is active or passive. In an active sentence, the subject of the sentence is performing an action, whereas in a passive sentence, the subject is undergoing an action rather than performing it.

For instance “Mary washed the dishes” is an active sentence, but the same sentence written in a passive voice would read “The dishes were washed by Mary.”

Why should you avoid using passive voice?

One reason writers are advised to avoid using passive voice is that passive sentences tend to be wordier than active sentences. Take the following sentences for instance.

Passive voice: “The house is cleaned once a week by Sarah.”

Active voice: “Sarah cleans the house once a week.”

Another problem with using passive voice is that it makes the object of the action the subject of the sentence, which can make the sentence difficult to follow. Stephen King shares the following example of how this can be problematic in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:

Passive voice: “My first kiss will be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun.” Active voice: “My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I'll never forget it.”

When is it okay to use passive voice?

While it’s true that active voice is usually preferable, there are a few instances where using a passive voice can help you get a certain message across more effectively.

For example, if you don’t want your readers to know who is performing an action, or if the action itself is more important than who performed the action, you might choose to use a passive voice. So rather than saying “John had moved the body since the last time they saw it” you could say “The body had been moved since the last time they saw it.” Or if you don’t want to announce that Mary ate all the cookies you could simple say “All the cookies have been eaten.”

In short, when used thoughtfully, a passive voice can be a useful tool, but in most cases, switching to an active voice will make your writing clearer, livelier and far more enjoyable to read.

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