Welcome to Writing Tip Tuesday, the Passive Voice edition. This is the eleventh in a series of posts pulled from my free guide “On Not Writing Badly.” You can download the whole thing by filling out this form, or, if you’d rather not subscribe to my email list, you can simply check back here over the next several Tuesdays for a regular dose of word nerdery.
Basic sentence structure puts the subject of your sentence up front, with the verb following close after. The object of the sentence generally comes later.
Example: The dog (subject) barked (verb) at the boy (object).
In a sentence that uses active voice, the subject is doing the action. Generally speaking, active voice is preferred.
Example: I (subject) am holding (verb) the pen (object).
In a sentence that uses passive voice, the object is moved to the position of subject.
Example: The pen (object) is being held (verb) by me (subject).
Passive voice can be wordy and awkward, which is why it is generally frowned upon, but there are times when it is the better choice, as it serves to remove subjectivity.
Example: The pollution was found to be extensive. (Given the scientific topic and the need to remain impartial, this sentence is probably fine.)
Example: The holding of the pen was being carried out by me. (Terrible.)
Example: The finding of the pollution that was extensive was carried out by the researchers. (Terrible.)
Notice that in each of the examples of passive voice, the word “by” is needed or could be easily added. If you can easily add “by _____” to the end of a sentence, it is probably passive. You can have a little fun with this and add “by zombies,” or “by Donald Trump.”
Example: The knife is being held by Donald Trump.
The frighting image conjured by either option should help you remember to rearrange in favor of active voice.