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What is Passive Voice?

Ray Hawk
Ray Hawk

Passive voice is a form of written and spoken language where it is common for the subject to express the verb, instead of the main object of the sentence expressing the verb. An example of passive voice would be, “The toy was picked up by the child,” instead of, “The child picked up the toy.” The latter demonstrates active voice, which is much more commonly written and spoken.

Active and passive voice are often interchanged within writing and speaking without the author realizing they have done so. Language tends to favor the active voice. Traditionally, using passive voice as a dominant form in writing has been discouraged, as it seems more detached and impersonal. Verb tense tends to favor active voice as a natural form of speaking as it conveys a sense of immediacy as well.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

It has been said that passive voice is often used when one wants to detach themselves from involvement in, or not show partisanship for, a particular topic. Passive voice can often be seen in scientific, technical, and academic writing. It is also common for politicians to use passive voice in key instances. A good example of this is when former US President Ronald Reagan apologized for the Iran-Contra scandal on public television with essentially a non-apology, stating that “mistakes were made,” but not actively or specifically laying the blame for those mistakes anywhere.

A popular definition of passive voice labels it as anything unassertive or as indirectly referenced speaking. In fact, this is not passive voice at all, but language that lacks the directness that most assume is active voice. The vague nature of delineating between passive and active voice can be demonstrated in sentences where there is no active verb tense at all, yet it appears to the average reader as if it is active voice writing. “My dessert was eaten by someone,” has no active verb, yet is considered an active voice sentence. By contrast, the direct “Someone ate my dessert,” is clearly active voice.

Seminal writing authorities such as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, frown upon the use of passive voice, yet use it themselves in the process of criticizing it. It is tightly interwoven into most languages to such a degree that to attempt to eliminate it entirely would greatly restrict the expression of ideas. Spoken language lends itself more naturally to the active voice, but, in written form, there are many instances where passive voice is an easier and more appropriate method of conveying information to a large audience.

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