Active voice versus passive voice

Summary:

This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

Active voice is used for most non-scientific writing. Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy. Even in scientific writing, too much use of passive voice can cloud the meaning of your sentences.

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

The action is performed upon the sentence subject, meaning this sentence is passive (indirect).

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

This is an example of the active voice because the sentence subject performs the action.

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

This is an example of the passive voice.

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

This is an example of an active voice sentence because the sentence subject performs the action.

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

This is an example of the passive voice.

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

This is an example of an active voice sentence because its subject performs the action expressed in the verb.

Sentences in active voice are also more concise than those in passive voice because fewer words are required to express action in active voice than in passive.

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

This passive voice sentence is less concise than its active voice counterpart (shown below).

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

This active voice sentence requires fewer words to communicate the same idea as the passive voice version (above).

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

This passive voice sentence is more wordy than an active voice version.

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

This active voice sentence is more concise than the passive voice version (above) because the subject directly performs the action.

Active vs. Passive voice: What’s the difference? What sho… | AJE

Growing up in American schools, students are often taught that they should avoid the passive voice because it is “weak.” However, the choice between active and passive is actually quite nuanced.

Depending on the ideas you are trying to express and the conventions of the discipline/journal in which you are writing, the passive voice can be an appropriate, sophisticated, and even preferable choice over the active voice. Nevertheless, the active voice is sometimes a far better choice, and you may use both in the same article depending on the context and content of your sentences and the section of your paper you are writing.

The following guidelines and examples should help you in choosing between active and passive voice.

At the most basic level, the active voice emphasizes the person or agent who performs an action, in short, the “actor.” The passive voice emphasizes the recipient of the action or sometimes the action itself

Example 1:

  • Active: “The dog chased the ball.”
  • Passive: “The ball was chased by the dog.”

In this very simple sentence, the active voice is the better choice. It is more concise (shorter), more direct, and stronger. The passive voice, in this case, is unnecessarily wordy and clunky.

However, there are many examples where we either cannot or do not want to emphasize the actor, particularly if there is an element of mystery involved:

Example 2:

  • Passive: “My car was stolen on Sunday night.”

In this case, the speaker may not/does not know who stole her car, and this use of the passive is perfectly appropriate.

The active alternative would be “Someone stole my car on Sunday night.” But this is a case where the speaker probably wants to emphasize the action itself rather than the perpetrator. She wants to emphasize that something bad happened to her.

You’ll notice something about the two passive examples above: both use a form of the verb “to be” – in this case, the past form “was” (“was chased,” “was stolen”).

This is called a “helping” or “auxiliary” verb because it helps to complete the sentence (you can’t say “My car stolen on Sunday night”). These verbs are not needed in active sentence constructions, which is one main reason why many people say that active sentences are stronger and more concise.

Now that we’ve clarified the basic distinction between active and passive, let’s look at some more realistic, complex examples from academic writing

Example 1:

  • Passive: The interviews were conducted by two people who had no relationship with New York City.
  • Active: Two people who had no relationship with New York City conducted the interviews [or, Two people, neither of whom had a relationship with New York City, conducted the interviews].

In this case, the authors want to emphasize the interviews – and how they were conducted – as an element of their research methodology. Therefore, the passive voice is an appropriate choice, although the active voice would not be incorrect.

Example 2:

  • Passive: Atlas.ti software was used for qualitative data analysis.
  • Active option 1: We used Atlas.ti software for qualitative data analysis.
  • Active option 2: The researchers used Atlas.ti software for qualitative data analysis.

In this case, the active options may be problematic for different reasons.

The first option is grammatically correct, but some researchers/writers and journals prefer to avoid the use of the first person. (Learn more about which person to use when writing.) Choosing the passive voice is an easy way to avoid having to make a decision about using the sometimes-questionable word “we.”

Active option 2 – which uses the third person (“the researchers”) – is grammatically correct but sounds a bit awkward. Again, as in Example 1, the authors of this article are emphasizing aspects of their methodology, one of which is their software choice. Thus, their use of the passive voice is acceptable and appropriate.

Example 3:

  • Passive: This research was approved by the ethics committee of the Institute of Gerontology.
  • Active: The ethics committee of the Institute of Gerontology approved this research.

Again, in this case, the authors are emphasizing that their research was approved. This is an important piece of information, arguably more important than the entity that did the approving.

Thus, the passive voice is justified.

Example 4:

  • Active: Choudhary proposed the methods and principles by which each process in product synthesis could be analyzed.
  • Passive: The methods and principles by which each process in product synthesis could be analyzed were proposed by Choudhary.

Use the active voice

Generally, try to use the active voice whenever possible. Passive voice sentences often use more words, can be vague, and can lead to a tangle of prepositional phrases.

Active vs. passive voice

In a sentence written in the active voice, the subject of sentence performs the action. In a sentence written in the passive voice the subject receives the action.

Active: The candidate believes that Congress must place a ceiling on the budget.
Passive: It is believed by the candidate that a ceiling must be placed on the budget by Congress.

Active: Researchers earlier showed that high stress can cause heart attacks.
Passive: It was earlier demonstrated that heart attacks can be caused by high stress.

Active: The dog bit the man.
Passive: The man was bitten by the dog.

Converting sentences to active voice

Here are some tips and strategies for converting sentences from the passive to the active voice.

  • Look for a “by” phrase (e.g., “by the dog” in the last example above). If you find one, the sentence may be in the passive voice. Rewrite the sentence so that the subject buried in the “by” clause is closer to the beginning of the sentence.
  • If the subject of the sentence is somewhat anonymous, see if you can use a general term, such as “researchers,” or “the study,” or “experts in this field.”

When to use passive voice

There are sometimes good reasons to use the passive voice.

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To emphasize the action rather than the actor

After long debate, the proposal was endorsed by the long-range planning committee.

To keep the subject and focus consistent throughout a passage

The data processing department recently presented what proved to be a controversial proposal to expand its staff. After long debate, the proposal was endorsed by . . . .

To be tactful by not naming the actor

The procedures were somehow misinterpreted.

To describe a condition in which the actor is unknown or unimportant

Every year, thousands of people are diagnosed as having cancer.

To create an authoritative tone

Visitors are not allowed after 9:00 p.m.

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Examples of Active and Passive Voice

The active voice describes a sentence where the subject performs the action stated by the verb. It follows a clear subject + verb + object construct that's easy to read. In fact, sentences constructed in the active voice add impact to your writing.

With passive voice, the subject is acted upon by the verb. It makes for a murky, roundabout sentence; you can be more straightforward with active voice. As such, there are many ways to change the passive voice to the active voice in your sentences.

Over time, writing in the active voice will become second nature. Let's explore several examples of active and passive voice to reduce your use of the passive voice where the active voice is preferred.

Before we explore a wealth of examples, let's review some active writing tips. You'll notice that, in the passive voice examples below, there are a few key words. Examples include:

  • is – is roamed; is viewed
  • was – was changed; was run
  • were – were eaten; were corroded

Pay special attention to the subject in each sentence. Is the subject performing the action denoted by the verb? If so, chances are you have a nice, clear sentence, written in active voice.

In the passive voice, however, the subject is no longer performing the action of the verb. Rather, it's being acted upon by the verb.

Put another way, the subject of a sentence in the passive voice is no longer the “doer” of the action, but the recipient of the action.

Meanwhile, what was the subject of a sentence in the active voice (the “doer”) becomes the “agent” in the equivalent passive voice sentence.

Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

Today's topic is active voice versus passive voice.

Here's a question from Brian in Iowa. He writes, “It drives me crazy when people write in passive voice. How can I teach people how to tell the difference between passive and active voice and to stay away from passive voice?”

Well, Brian is right, the first step is to help people understand the difference between active and passive voice, because many people believe they should avoid the passive voice, but fewer people can define it or recognize it.

What Is Active Voice?

I'll start with active voice because it's simpler. In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. A straightforward example is the sentence “Steve loves Amy.” Steve is the subject, and he is doing the action: he loves Amy, the object of the sentence.

Another example is the title of the Marvin Gaye song “I Heard It through the Grapevine.” “I” is the subject, the one who is doing the action. “I” is hearing “it,” the object of the sentence.

What Is Passive Voice?

In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, “Steve loves Amy,” I would say, “Amy is loved by Steve.” The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn't doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Steve's love. The focus of the sentence has changed from Steve to Amy.

If you wanted to make the title of the Marvin Gaye song passive, you would say “It was heard by me through the grapevine,” not such a catchy title anymore.

Is “To Be” a Sign of a Passive Sentence?

A lot of people think all sentences that contain a form of the verb “to be” are in passive voice, but that isn't true. For example, the sentence “I am holding a pen” is in active voice, but it uses the verb “am,” which is a form of “to be.” The passive form of that sentence is “The pen is being held by me.”

Notice that the subject, the pen, isn't doing anything in that sentence. It's not taking an action; it's passive. One clue that your sentence is passive is that the subject isn't taking a direct action.

Is Passive Voice Always Wrong?

Passive voice isn't wrong, but it's often a poor way to present your thoughts.

Another important point is that passive sentences aren't incorrect; it’s just that they often aren't the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. Also, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentence.

When you put sentences in passive voice, it's easy to leave out the person or thing doing the action. For example, “Amy is loved,” is passive. The problem with that sentence is that you don't know who loves Amy.

Politicians often use passive voice to intentionally obscure the idea of who is taking the action. Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mistakes were made,” when referring to the Iran-Contra scandal. Other examples of passive voice for political reasons could include “Bombs were dropped,” and “Shots were fired.” Pay attention to the news and listen for examples of passive voice.

Also, a reader named Matthew commented that businesses sometimes use passive voice. He notes that it sounds better to write, “Your electricity will be shut off,” than “We, the electric company, will be shutting off your power.”

Is Passive Voice Hard to Understand?

Active voice vs. passive voice | Technical Writing | Google Developers

Estimated Time: 15 minutes

The vast majority of sentences in technical writing should be
in active voice. This unit teaches you how to do the following:

  • Distinguish passive voice from active voice.
  • Convert passive voice to active voice because active voice
    is usually clearer.

First, watch this video, just to get the ball
rolling1:

In an active voice sentence, an actor acts on a target. That is,
an active voice sentence follows this formula:

Active Voice Sentence = actor + verb + target

A passive voice sentence reverses the formula. That is, a passive
voice sentence typically follows the following formula:

Passive Voice Sentence = target + verb + actor

Active voice example

For example, here’s a short, active voice sentence:

The cat sat on the mat.

  • actor: The cat
  • verb: sat
  • target: the mat

Passive voice examples

By contrast, here's that same sentence in passive voice:

The mat was sat on by the cat.

  • target: The mat
  • passive verb: was sat
  • actor: the cat

Some passive voice sentences omit an actor. For example:

The mat was sat on.

  • actor: unknown
  • passive verb: was sat
  • target: the mat

Who or what sat on the mat? A cat? A dog? A T-Rex? Readers can only guess.
Good sentences in technical documentation identify who is doing what to whom.

Recognize passive verbs

Passive verbs typically have the following formula:

passive verb = form of be + past participle verb

Although the preceding formula looks daunting, it is actually pretty simple:

  • A form of be in a passive verb is typically one of the following words:
  • A past participle verb is typically a plain verb plus the suffix ed. For example, the following are past participle verbs:
    • interpreted
    • generated
    • formed
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Unfortunately, some past participle verbs are irregular; that is, the past
participle form does not end with the suffix ed. For example:

Putting the form of be and the past participle together yields passive
verbs, such as the following:

  • was interpreted
  • is generated
  • was formed
  • is frozen

If the phrase contains an actor, a preposition ordinarily follows the
passive verb. (That preposition is often a key clue to help you spot
passive voice.) The following examples combine the passive verb and
the preposition:

  • was interpreted as
  • is generated by
  • was formed by
  • is frozen by

Imperative verbs are typically active

It is easy to mistakenly classify sentences starting with an imperative
verb as passive. An imperative verb is a command. Many items in
numbered lists start with imperative verbs. For example, Open and
Set in the following list are both imperative verbs:

  1. Open the configuration file.
  2. Set the Frombus variable to False.

Sentences that start with an imperative verb are typically in active voice,
even though they do not explicitly mention an actor. Instead, sentences
that start with an imperative verb imply an actor. The implied actor
is you.

Exercise

Mark each of the following sentences as either Passive or Active:

  1. MutableInput provides read-only access.
  2. Read-only access is provided by MutableInput.
  3. Performance was measured.
  4. Python was invented by Guido van Rossum in the twentieth century.
  5. David Korn discovered the KornShell quite by accident.
  6. This information is used by the policy enforcement team.
  7. Click the Submit button.
  8. The orbit was calculated by Katherine Johnson.
  1. Active. MutableInput provides read-only access.
  2. Passive. Read-only access is provided by MutableInput.
  3. Passive. Performance was measured.
  4. Passive. Python was invented by Guido van Rossum in the twentieth century.
  5. Active. David Korn discovered the KornShell quite by accident.
  6. Passive. This information is used by the policy enforcement team.
  7. Active. Click the Submit button. (Click is an imperative verb.)
  8. Passive. The orbit was calculated by Katherine Johnson.

Distinguish active voice from passive voice in more complex sentences

Many sentences contain multiple verbs, some of which are active and
some of which are passive. For example, the following sentence
contains two verbs, both of which are in passive voice:

Here is that same sentence, partially converted to active voice:

And here is that same sentence, now fully converted to active voice:

Exercise

Each of the following sentences contains two verbs.
Categorize each of the verbs in the following sentences as either
active or passive. For example, if the first verb is active and
the second is passive, write Active, Passive.

  1. The QA team loves ice cream, but the writers prefer sorbet.
  2. Performance metrics are required by the team, though I prefer wild guesses.
  3. When software engineers attempt something new and innovative, a reward
    should be given.
  1. Active, Active. The QA team loves ice cream, but the writers prefer sorbet.
  2. Passive, Active. Performance metrics are required by the team, though I prefer wild guesses.
  3. Active, Passive. When software engineers attempt something new and innovative, a reward should be given.

Prefer active voice to passive voice

Use the active voice most of the time. Use the passive voice sparingly.
Active voice provides the following advantages:

  • Most readers mentally convert passive voice to active voice.
    Why subject your readers to extra processing time? By sticking to
    active voice, readers can skip the preprocessor stage and go straight
    to compilation.
  • Passive voice obfuscates your ideas, turning sentences on their head.
    Passive voice reports action indirectly.
  • Some passive voice sentences omit an actor altogether, which forces
    the reader to guess the actor's identity.
  • Active voice is generally shorter than passive voice.

Be bold—be active.

Scientific research reports (optional material)

The writing in research reports tends to be understated. Here, for example,
is one of the most famous passages in twentieth century science writing,
from Crick and Watson's 1953 paper in Nature entitled,
Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose
Nucleic Acid:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated
immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

The authors are so excited about their discovery that they're
whispering it from the rooftops.

Passive voice thrives in a tentative landscape. In research reports,
experimenters and their equipment often disappear, leading to passive
sentences that start off as follows:

  • It has been suggested that…
  • Data was taken…
  • Statistics were calculated…
  • Results were evaluated.

Do we know who is doing what to whom? No. Does the passive voice
somehow make the information more objective? No.

Many scientific journals have embraced active voice. We encourage
the remainder to join the quest for clarity.

Exercise

Rewrite the following passive voice sentences as active voice. Only part of
certain sentences are in passive voice; ensure that all parts end up as active
voice:

  1. The flags were not parsed by the Mungifier.
  2. A wrapper is generated by the Op registration process.
  3. Only one experiment per layer is selected by the Frombus system.
  4. Quality metrics are identified by asterisks; ampersands identify bad
    metrics.
  1. The Mungifier did not parse the flags.
  2. The Op registration process generates a wrapper.
  3. The Frombus system selects only one experiment per layer.
  4. Asterisks identify quality metrics; ampersands identify bad metrics.

Next unit: Clear sentences

Active and passive voice

Home » English Grammar » Verbs

Level: beginner

Transitive verbs have both active and passive forms:

active   passive
The hunter killed the lion. > The lion was killed by the hunter.
Someone has cleaned the windows. > The windows have been cleaned.

Passive forms are made up of the verb be with a past participle:

  bepast participle  
English is spoken all over the world.
The windows have been cleaned.
Lunch was being served.
The work will be finished soon.
They might have been invited to the party.

If we want to show the person or thing doing the action, we use by:

She was attacked by a dangerous dog.
The money was stolen by her husband.

Active and passive voice 1

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Active and passive voice 2

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Active and passive voice 3

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Level: intermediate

The passive infinitive is made up of to be with a past participle:

The doors are going to be locked at ten o'clock.
You shouldn't have done that. You ought to be punished.

We sometimes use the verb get with a past participle to form the passive:

Be careful with that glass. It might get broken.
Peter got hurt in a crash.

We can use the indirect object as the subject of a passive verb:

active   passive
I gave him a book for his birthday. > He was given a book for his birthday.
Someone sent her a cheque for a thousand euros. > She was sent a cheque for a thousand euros.

We can use phrasal verbs in the passive: 

active   passive
They called off the meeting. > The meeting was called off.
His grandmother looked after him. > He was looked after by his grandmother.
They will send him away to school. > He will be sent away to school.

Active and passive voice 4

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Active and passive voice 5

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Level: advanced

Some verbs which are very frequently used in the passive are followed by the to-infinitive:

be supposed to be expected to be asked to be told to
be scheduled to be allowed to be invited to be ordered to

John has been asked to make a speech at the meeting.
You are supposed to wear a uniform.
The meeting is scheduled to start at seven.

Active and passive voice 6

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Active and passive voice 7

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Active and Passive Voice – Scholarly Voice

Active voice and passive voice are grammatical constructions that communicate certain information about an action.

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Specifically, APA explains that voice shows relationships between the verb and the subject and/or object (see APA 7, Section 4.13). Writers need to be intentional about voice in order to ensure clarity.

Using active voice often improves clarity, while passive voice can help avoid unnecessary repetition.  

Active voice can help ensure clarity by making it clear to the reader who is taking action in the sentence. In addition, the active voice stresses that the actor (or grammatical subject) precedes the verb, again, putting emphasis on the subject. Passive voice construction leaves out the actor (subject) and focuses on the relationship between the verb and object.

The order of words in a sentence with active voice is subject, verb, object.

  • Active voice example: I conducted a study of elementary school teachers.
  • This sentence structure puts the emphasis of the sentence on the subject, clarifying who conducted the study. 
  • Passive voice example: A study was conducted of elementary school teachers.
  • In this sentence, it is not clear who conducted this study. 

Generally, in scholarly writing, with its emphasis on precision and clarity, the active voice is preferred. However, the passive voice is acceptable in some instances, for example:

  1. if the reader is aware of who the actor is;
  2. in expository writing, where the goal of the discussion is to provide background, context, or an in-depth explanation;
  3. if the writer wants to focus on the object or the implications of the actor’s action; or
  4. to vary sentence structure.  

Passive Voice vs. Active Voice: FINALLY Understand the Difference

When you look over the following sentences, can you identify the ones written in passive voice and the ones using active voice?

  1. The blog post was being published by Reedsy.
  2. Reedsy had published the blog post.
  3. The blog post is published by Reedsy.
  4. The blog post will be published by Reedsy.

If you answered: “The only active sentence is ‘2,’ and the rest are passive” — you are correct! And if you're not sure why that's the right answer? Don't fear: that's why this post is here. In this article, we'll show you exactly how to spot passive voice, how to fix it, and also it's a-okay to use passive voice.

What is passive voice?

  • A sentence written with passive voice puts emphasis on the person or thing that experiences the action, instead of the person or thing driving the action.
  • For example, consider this line from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe:
  • “In the beginning the Universe was created.”

The subject of the sentence is “the Universe.” The action of the sentence is “created.

” Because the subject is receiving the action (the creation is happening to the Universe), this is a passive sentence.

Passive sentences are comprised of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ and the past tense of the main verb. For example:

“Am / Are / Is” + past verb tense The dog is walked by his owner.

“Am / Are / Is being”
+ past verb tense The dogs are being walked by their owners.

“Was / Were”
+ past verb tense — The dog was walked by his owner.


“Was / Were being”
+ past verb tense — The dogs were being walked by their owners.

“Will be”
+ past verb tense — The dog will be walked by its owner.

“Will have been”
+ past verb tense — The dog will have been walked by its owner.

“Have / Has been”
+ past verb tense — The dog has been walked by its owner.


“Had been”
+ past verb tense — The dog had been walked by its owner.

An important thing to note about passive voice is that it is not the same thing as past tense. Passive voice refers to who the action relates to, while past tense refers to when the action happened.

For example, the sentence “The chef cooked dinner” is past tense because “cooked” is the past tense of “cooking.

” However, the subject of the sentence is the chef, who is performing the action, so the sentence is active, not passive.

There are two types of passive sentences

Short passive, in which the subject or performer of the action is not known. For instance, the above example is short passive because it does not identify who/what the Universe was created by.

Long passive, In which the agent performing the action is known but it is not the subject of the sentence. For instance, the The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe example turns into a long passive sentence if changed to: “In the beginning, the Universe was created by the aliens.”

Let’s take a look at a few more examples of passive voice to ensure we’re all on the same page.

Passive Voice Examples

The following sentences all feature the action happening to the subject.

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was made.” — Scaramouche: A Romance Of The French Revolution by Rafael Sabatini
(The action “was born” is happening to the subject “he.”)

“Scarlet O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” — Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
(The action “caught by her charm” is happening to a subject “the Tarleton twins.”)

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” — To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
(The action “got his arm badly broken” is happening to the subject “Jem.”)

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” — The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
(The second part of this sentence sees the action “changed into a monstrous vermin” happening to subject “Gregor Samsa.”)

What is active voice?

  1. Active voice is a sentence or clause that puts emphasis on the person or thing that drives the action, instead of the person or thing experiencing the action.

  2. Think of the opening line from George Orwell’s 1984:
  3. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

The subject of the sentence is “the clocks.” The action of the sentence is “striking.

” Because the subject is driving the action (the clocks are doing the striking), this is an active sentence.

Check out further instances of active voice at play in the following examples.

Active voice examples

The following sentences all feature the subject enacting some kind of action.

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” — The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks
(The subject “grandmother” is doing the action “exploded”).

“Mother died today.” — The Stranger by Albert Kamus
(The subject “mother” is doing the action “died.”)

“I write this sitting at the kitchen sink.” — I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
(The subject “I” is doing the action “write” and “sitting.”)

“You know, at one time, I used to break into pet shops to liberate the canaries.” — Harold and Maud by Colin Higgins
(The subject “I” is doing the action “break into pet shops” and “liberate the canaries.”)

It’s not a big secret in the world of grammar that passive voice is often considered as bad form. Supposedly, active voice produces  stronger, more direct sentences that make your writing feel — surprise, surprise — more active.

But is passive voice actually grammatically incorrect? Nope! There are definitely times when using the passive voice can enhance a statement’s clarity.

When to use passive voice

If you are writing something that requires objectivity,

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