When should you use the passive voice in writing?
Only use it when you have a good reason for doing so.
You have probably read a lot of advice about using the active voice as much as possible, and this is true.
But there are situations where you can choose, or there is no option other than to use the passive. Here’s a quick guide about when and why it’s a good idea to sometimes use passive forms.
What is the passive voice?
We form the passive in English using the auxiliary verb to be, followed by the past participle form of the main verb.
Unlike the active form, the subject of the sentence is an object.
Here’s an example of a simple passive sentence and a breakdown of its structure.
Our car was stolen.
If there is a need to define the performer or actor of the action, we can add a by operator at the end of the sentence.
Our car was stolen by thieves.
[Object] + [Form of “to be”] + [Past participle form of main verb] + [By + operator (optional)]
Using an operator often indicates that rewriting in the active voice might be a better choice.
Thieves stole our car.
Once you know the structure, choosing which form to use is easy.
8 Ways to use the passive voice effectively
For most writers, using the active voice is usually the best choice in any form of creative writing.
It is more direct and has much better descriptive potential.
You can say who did what and perhaps why.
It is action-focused, which is what you want in most forms of storytelling.
However, in some circumstances, using a passive sentence is more appropriate or practical.
You might want to hide the actor or create suspense.
But always be sure you use the passive voice for a very good reason, not simply because it is quick and easy.
Here are eight situations where passive sentences are either necessary, preferable, or possible.
1. When the actor is unknown
By far, this is the most common reason to use passive voice.
You use it when there is no possibility to identify who or what performed an action.
The front window was broken.
The only way to make a sentence like this active would be to use someone or something as a subject.
But if we don’t know who or what broke the window, it’s better in the passive form.
2. When the actor is unimportant
In this case, either the actor is irrelevant or implied.
Readers will understand from the sentence who performed the action.
Here are two examples.
Three men were arrested in connection with the robbery.
When someone is arrested, it is always by the police or another law enforcement agent.
I was born in 1985.
Yes, everyone knows that your mother gave birth to you. But it is implied, and that is why sentences with born are always in the passive form.
3. When you want to avoid repetition
Some sentences can contain verbs and subjects that are the same or similar.
In situations like this, you can avoid unnecessary repetition.
For example, an auctioneer will auction our house.
In this case, it would be better to remove the repeat.
Our house will be auctioned.
4. A general truth
It applies to many facts, expressions, and idioms.
We usually don’t know who said or wrote it.
Rules are meant to be broken.
Many rare species are endangered.
5. Avoid assigning blame or responsibility
It is a device that is often used in politics and business, mainly to ensure that no one is held personally responsible.
Most times, it is a sentence accepting that mistakes were made but without apportioning blame.
Mistakes were made in the implementation of the new social policy.
The company accounts were submitted without the required audit.
6. Emphasis on the object
When you write about works of art, monuments, or inventions, they are often more important than the actors.
In some cases, it might even be unclear who performed the action.
You can use the passive to give more attention to an object, but if necessary, you can add an operator.
Here’s an example of how to use it.
The Eiffel Tower in Paris was built between 1887 and 1889 as the centerpiece of the 1889 World’s Fair by the Société d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel.
7. Create a sense of mystery
Fiction writers sometimes use the passive voice to build a little suspense into a story.
Very often, it will be much later in a story before the actor becomes known.
You can often find it used in detective or mystery novels in sentences such as this.
A plain manilla envelope was slipped under her hotel room door during the night.
8. Technical and scientific writing
Technical articles and academic research papers are generally more clinical and formal in presenting facts.
The aim is to rely on data and statistics more than who compiled them.
The clinical trials were conducted over a two-year period involving 1,200 patients.
If there are references to people or groups, it is often done by using in-text citations or references at the end of the text.
This type of writing always has a much higher percentage of passive sentences than most other forms.
It is often referred to as neutral register writing.
It’s true that everything has its place.
Writing in the active voice is almost always the best option. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid the passive voice all the time.
It’s a grammar structure that is there for a reason, so it has practical uses.
Writing is always about making good decisions, and this is one choice that needs a little extra care and attention.
Whenever I proofread a text, I’m always on the lookout for passive sentences. Most of the time, they are a slip of the fingers, so I’ll usually rewrite them in active voice.
But there are times when I might go the other way and change an active sentence into a passive one.
The passive is not bad or to be avoided at all costs. It’s a useful structure, but it’s always best to use it in moderation.
Related Reading: How To Avoid Passive Voice In Writing – 10 Tips To Help You