What is the passive voice?
On April 9, 2018 | 0 Comments | Grammar tips, Writing tips |

Unless you’re a grammar nut like I am, chances are you’ve never heard the term “passive voice.” Here’s a quick explanation:

Passive voice without attribution is when we learn that something happens without learning who did it.

For example:

  • Active voice: Gloria ate all the cookies.
  • Passive voice without attribution: All the cookies were eaten.
  • Active voice: David stole the cookies out of the box.
  • Passive voice without attribution: The cookies were stolen out of the box.

Passive voice with attribution tell us who did it:

  • All the cookies were eaten by Gloria.
  • The cookies were stolen out of the box by David.

Passive voice with attribution is clunky, but it is better than no attribution at all.

It’s okay to use the passive voice now and again, but as a rule it’s best to avoid it because the writing sounds a bit weak. And using it too often without attribution can irritate your readers because they will be left wondering things such as “Who ate the cookies?” or “Who stole the cookies?”

Journalists are forced to use passive voice without attribution when they simply don’t have all the information, for example:

  • Police believe the victim was pushed down the stairs.

If the police (and by extension) the reporter knew who pushed the victim down the stairs, the active voice could be used:

  • Police believe the victim’s ex-husband pushed her down the stairs.

NOTE: The sentence could also read “Police say the victim was pushed down the stairs by her ex-husband.” (Again, a little clunky, but the passive voice with attribution is better than no attribution at all.)

Following are nearly identical scenarios, one using active voice, two using passive voice.

A)   The cat climbed the tree in a few seconds.

B)   The tree was climbed in a few seconds.

C)   The tree was climbed by the cat in a few seconds.

Which one do you think sounds better? If your answer isn’t A, read the sentences out loud to see if that changes your mind.



This blog post originally appeared on CreateSpace.com. Reprinted with permission. © 2018 CreateSpace, a DBA of On-Demand Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.

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