When to use the passive voice in your writing
It’s not always a bad thing.
You’ve probably heard that passive voice is bad in writing.
Be honest: Do you know what passive voice is?
If you don’t, it’s OK. It may be something you’ve sensed without quite understanding, the memory of what it means grammatically locked away in some chalk-dusted memory from middle school.
Replacing passive voice with active can improve your writing. It can make your writing clearer, more succinct and more vibrant.
But first, let’s dive into how to identify passive voice so we can work on reducing it.
What is passive voice?
We’re going to have to throw a few grammar terms at you for this next bit.
First, let’s define active voice. Active voice is when the subject of the sentence performs the action of the story. In other words, the main actor in the sentence does the main action.
For example, “I wrote the article” is in the active voice.
Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is acted upon. It does not take the action itself, but it is having something happen to it.
“The article was written” is passive voice. Who wrote the article? We don’t know. Was it me, a ghost, an AI program? No clue. We merely know that the article was acted upon and poofed into being.
You can often (but not always) identify passive voice by its use of forms of the verb “to be.” Because English is a nightmare of a language when it comes to irregular verbs, this includes words like “is,” “was” or “had been.”
However, these words can also just be part of the construction of various past tenses, so this isn’t a fool- proof identification method.
Why is passive voice bad?
Simply put, active voice is usually the clearer option. It’s shorter, removing additional helping verbs and focusing on one strong verb. It gives the reader a clearer idea of who is doing what without needing to go back and re-read a sentence or wonder who wrote the article, to use our above example.
It often just isn’t that exciting. Think about reading a novel or watching a movie. Do you enjoy watching a passive protagonist who is merely acted upon? No! You want someone who is going to take the ring to Mount Doom rather than sitting at home in their hobbit hole. The same is true even in business writing. Doing things is more interesting than having things happen. Overusing the passive voice can make your writing dull, overly long and monotonous rather than punchy and concise.
When is using the passive voice OK?
All that said, the passive voice is still an important part of the English language. You don’t need to root out every single occurrence of it like a weed in your flower garden.
Merriam-Webster even extolls the passive voice in certain instances: “(I)t is useful for those instances when you want to emphasize the fact of an action having taken place rather than who performed the action. It is also helpful for instances when the doer of an action (also known as the agent) is unknown.”
The dictionary goes on to explain that sometimes the passive voice is maligned because it can be seen as a way of linguistically dodging responsibility. Look at the difference between “People were laid off” versus “The CEO laid people off.”
One is untethered from any person or decision, while the other clearly casts blame or responsibility, depending on how you want to look at it.
The key here is to use the passive voice strategically, not accidentally. Active voice often makes writing more dynamic and clearer, but there are times when passive voice is the best way to convey your message with tact and strategy.
Allison Carter is executive editor of PR Daily. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.