Wilcox Editing

Passive Voice

If you have ever taken a composition course, your instructors have probably admonished you not to use passive voice. But what exactly is passive voice, and why shouldn’t one use it?

I have noticed some confusion in the writing world between the idea of a passive construction (a more general concept) and the specific grammatical phenomenon called passive voice.

Even the revered handbook Elements of Style muddles the difference in rule 14, stating under the rule “Use the active voice,” that “many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as ‘there is’ or ‘could be heard’ (18).”

Although this is great writing advice, “there is” does not constitute passive voice, but rather a passive construction. “Could be heard,” on the other hand, is in passive voice. I prefer to restrict the meaning of “active voice” to the opposite of “passive voice,” although Strunk & White seem to use “active voice” more broadly. Their examples following this statement at the end of rule 14 are a further mix of passive voice and passive constructions, not helpful to anyone pulling his hair out, trying to figure out why his composition teacher has penalized him on his research paper for using passive voice.

Passive voice is the result of a particular grammatical transformation called passivization. Transformations are actions performed on a basic sentence pattern that alter the sentence’s syntax, or surface structure. English sentences generally contain a subject and a predicate, the predicate being the part of the sentence that contains the main verb. The most basic distinction between verb types is that between verbs of state and verbs of action. Among verbs of action, we have the subsets intransitive and transitive verbs. Only transitive verbs generate passivizable sentence patterns.

How do you know if a verb is transitive? It needs a direct object to complete it. Whereas verbs of state are followed by subject complements that describe the subject, direct objects receive the subject’s action as conveyed by the verb:

Simple-Transitive-Verb Sentence Pattern
Jimmy kicked Billy.

Verb-of-State Sentence Pattern
Jimmy is sorry now.

Intransitive-Verb Sentence Pattern
Billy still cried.

I could outline more details and pitfalls about recognizing transitive verbs, but for now let’s take a look at how passivization works using a simple, clear example of the transitive-verb sentence pattern.

We can start with the sentence above, “Jimmy kicked Billy,” recognizing that [Jimmy] is the subject, [kicked] is the main or predicating verb, and [Billy] is the direct object. In order to passivize this or any sentence, we first move the direct object [Billy] to the front of the sentence, into the subject position:

*Billy Jimmy kicked.

Next, we slide the true subject [Jimmy] into the former object position with the preposition “by” in front of it (which makes Jimmy the object of a preposition rather than the verb’s direct object):

*Billy kicked by Jimmy.

Billy has now overthrown Jimmy as the subject of our sentence, but only superficially, at the level of surface structure. Jimmy is still the subject at the deep-grammar level.

Finally, we modify the verb using the perfective aspect (which you are familiar with even if you didn’t know what it was called):

Billy was kicked by Jimmy.

This sentence is now in passive voice; it is the passive version of the active sentence, “Jimmy kicked Billy.”

All that work transforming a basic sentence, and you still don’t get an A on your paper? Nope. Composition teachers, editors, and readers prefer active voice in most cases. Here’s why.

The prepositional phrase at the end of a passivized sentence becomes optional. In other words, you could say, “Billy was kicked,” leaving off “by Jimmy” without getting a marked construction. Since Jimmy is the true subject of this sentence at the deep-grammar level, passive voice allows one to omit the sentence’s true subject. Put another way, passive voice obscures agency, making it possible to remove the true doer from sight.

Word people frown upon this because:

1) the abbreviated passive voice allows one to make unsubstantiated assertions such as, “It is well known that cheetahs originated on the moon,” to which one must reply, “Known by whom?”

2) the abbreviated passive voice also offers the writer an easy way to leave out essential information about who is responsible for an action, as if the action just happened on its own without any agent behind it. For example, “It was decided that America should drop the atomic bomb,” to which a savvy reader might reply, “Decided by whom?”

In addition, the full passive form clutters your paper or story with excess verbiage, whereas great writing wastes no words.

The easiest way to recognize passive voice is to look for that “by X” prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence. But remember that even if it isn’t there overtly, it might be hiding in the margins because its inclusion becomes optional in passive voice. To find your latent “by X” prepositional phrase, read the sentence or clause in question and then ask, “By whom?” or “By what?” If the question is relevant, the sentence is in passive voice. If the question is not relevant, you may be looking at a passive construction, but you are not looking at passive voice.

Michelle said:

The passive voice is detested by many!


Erin Wilcox has been instrumental in helping me select promising pieces of my nonfiction via her editorial assessment service. She then provided outstanding developmental editing, which was crucial to getting the pieces accepted for publication. Not least, she is a pleasure to work with.”

Richard Moore,
"Crossing Erez," "Princeton Dreaming," "A Death in the Hot Season"

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