What's wrong with the passive voice?

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By far, the most frequently asked question on this forum is about passive and active voice.  I think I can safely speak for the regulars here when I say, "I am so tired of reading and answering this question."  New users don't know, of course, that these questions have been posed dozens (if not hundreds) of times.  I am posting this as a "question" so that I can easily point to the answer, rather than writing it over and over.  Please note, new users, that this forum is provided by Grammarly, but the participants are not employees.  We help out here because we enjoy talking about grammar.

 

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Grammarly says my sentence is passive.  What's wrong with that?

 

The passive voice is not grammatically wrong.  In general, the active voice is more pleasant to read.  Many teachers require papers to be written in the active voice.  With this in mind, Grammarly's software flags sentences that are written in the passive voice.  It is up to the writer to determine whether it should remain so or be changed.  Scientific writing is usually more passive.  Even when writing in the active voice, some sentences are appropriately correct in the passive voice.

 

How do I change my sentence from passive to active?

 

See Jeff's answer below.  Also, in the search field near the top of this page, type in "passive" or "active" and you will find dozens of questions with detailed discussion and examples in the answers. 

passive active voice edited Nov 23 '12 at 18:09 Patty T Grammarly Fellow

Thank you Patty!

Richard KirkwoodNov 26 '12 at 00:53

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3 answers


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How do I change my sentence from passive to active?

 

The passive voice occurs when the "actor" of the sentence is in the object position. The passive voice often uses a "weak" verb, such as one of the "to be" verbs -- was, is, are .... Here are two examples:

 

Passive -- The home run was hit by Buster Posey.

Active -- Buster Posey hit the home run.

 

To make the sentence active, we need to make the actor the subject of the sentence. In many cases, that means adding information to the sentence.

 

While the active voice is generally more readable and interesting, there are times when the actor is unimportant. Rearranging the sentence and adding an actor may confuse the overall meaning. As Patty said, this often occurs in scientific writing. When this is the case, you should use the passive voice with confidence.

link edited Nov 23 '12 at 19:49 Jeff Pribyl Grammarly Fellow

Thanks Jeff!

Patty TNov 23 '12 at 18:14

I'd like to expand on Jeff's comment, "In many cases, this means adding information to the sentence." I often see passive sentences in technical writing that are similar to this: "When the form is filled with values, the result can be calculated." In this case, there is no indication as to who is filling the form or who is calculating the result. Is it the person using the app? Or is it done automatically by the app? That information is missing, so you have to add it to make the sentence clearer. For example, "After you fill the form with values, the app calculates the result."

As a professional technical writer, I agree that people commonly use passive voice in scientific and technical writing, but I don't believe that people should be encouraged to use it. Passive voice is harder to read and understand in many cases and leads to sloppy writing in many cases, as well. The world would be a better place if technical and scientific material used a lot more active voice.

EllenJun 08 '13 at 07:49

P.S. But I agree that not all passive voice is bad.

EllenJun 08 '13 at 07:52

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the freshman was laughed at by the senior students.

link comment answered Oct 13 '14 at 09:35 Maria Miniassian New member
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I really think even saying that passive voice should be used "sparingly" is wrong.  A sentence focuses on either the subject or the object.  If the focus is the subject, you should use active voice.  If the focus is the object, you should use passive voice.  To me, that's a very clear rule, and it's just as wrong to use active voice when the focus is the object as it is to use passive voice when the focus is the subject.  I blame MS Word and other tools that employ grammar check for this.  These tools never consider the context, and always "catch" passive voice as a grammatical error.  I just turn them off.  If Microsoft had its way, my writing would be nonsensical gibberish.

 

Examples


1.  "We are talking about Bob.  He had a short life.  He was murdered by his wife."
Since Bob is the focus of this series of sentences, you should use the passive voice when discussing his murder ("He was murdered by his wife"), even though his wife is the subject of the sentence, because he is the topic being written about.  In this case, active voice ("His wife murdered him") would not be appropriate.

 

2. "We are talking about Bob.  He had a gift for writing.  He wrote 33 novels." Since Bob is both the primary topic and the subject of the last sentence, you should use the active voice.  In this case, since the topic is not the novels, it would not be appropriate to use passive voice ("Thirty-three novels were written by him.").

link comment answered Jul 19 at 18:57 Gregory Anderson New member

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