Posted in writing

The Passive Voice

Everyone talks about passive voice, but what is it exactly? How can it be made to work to benefit a piece of writing and when should it be avoided all together? When is a piece too passive? 

Passive voice occurs when the subject of a sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er. The subject exists, but not focused on. The real emphasis happens- when it is the most important- to the thing acted upon, or when the actor is not important.

Acted upon… The man was found on the side of the street.
Actor not important… The valley can be seen best from the top of the mountain.

In these cases passive voice works and is beneficial to a piece of writing, however, there are many times when passive voice is used and it shouldn’t be used at all. This usually happens a lot when the passive voice is used to avoid responsibility for actions taken.

Passive… The Native Americans were forced onto reservations by the government.
Active… The government forced the Native Americans onto reservations.

Passive… A letter is written.
Active… Josh writes a letter. OR… Josh wrote a letter.

Passive voice is created by combining a form of the “to be verb” with the past participle of the main verb. Sometimes other helping verbs can be present as well: “The house could have been burned to the ground by the fire.”

Formula of passive voice…

S + (be) + past participle

The house was designed just for her.

Example of some “to be verbs” are: was, were, is, are, has been, have been, will be, is being, and are being. A full listing of these verbs and more examples of the passive voice can be found at

When is a piece of writing too passive? Just skim through and see how many of the “to be verbs” hit you in the eyeball. In my pieces, I usually find an overabundance of was, has and have been, but everyone is different. It usually helps to highlight them in yellow to get the full effect, which also leaves you with a whole new appreciation of the passive voice.

For more on the passive and active voice you can check out some of these helpful websites…

  • More examples of passive and active voice examples can be found at…
  • Myths of passive voice and full definition can be found at… The Writing Center of UNC
  • A video explaining what passive voice is… The Passive Voice YouTube video
  • Take the passive voice quiz! Test you your knowledge of the passive voice here (scroll down the bottom of the page to take quiz)!

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