The Voice that is Passive


My students have been told by me to avoid the passive voice when writing. Weaker sentences are those that are written passively. More effectiveness and control are possible by sentences that are active. Following the subject with a verb is the more active way of writing and is a sign of more consideration on the part of the writer. This whole article was going to be written by me using the passive voice. It was found, however, that a strain on me was caused by doing so.

So I’ll stop now.

What is the passive voice? Well, English grammar has two ways of writing a sentence. The first, and most common, is ACTIVE. This is where the sentence follows the structure: Subject РVerb РObject.

The dog bit the man is active voice. The dog (subject) bit (verb) the man.

PASSIVE voice turns things around. In passive, the object of the sentence becomes the subject. The man was bitten by the dog.

So what’s the difference? Well, it all depends on what the focus of the sentence is. In The dog bit the man, the important noun in the sentence is the dog. In The man was bitten by the dog, we are more focused by the man. In the first, active, sentence, we are interested in the dog and its doings – in the second, passive, sentence, the man is our concern. Imagine someone asked a question:

‘I saw Bill walking around with a bandage on his leg. What happened to him?’

‘He was bitten by a dog.’

Contrast that with:

‘Why does Bill have a bandage on his leg?’

‘A dog bit him.’

Both are valid responses. However, the first is more focussed on Bill from the start. In the second, the focus starts with Bill but the responder to the question is changing the focus to the dog, perhaps in order to emphasise the cause of the accident rather than its consequences.

And therein lies the difference between active and passive voice. Active, the pedants say, is stronger than passive. In writing, there is less need for passive voice. Readers respond better to active, strong, positive statements.

True, they do. But there is no need to throw out the passive voice entirely. it’s used a lot in business documents, for instance and in informative writing, or where it is not necessary to state the doer of the action, or the doer is not known or relevant.

The verb of a sentence is active when the subject of the sentence does the action:

Mary had a little lamb.

The passive tells us what happens or is being done to the subject:

The lamb was owned by Mary.


If the doer of the action is unknown or irrelevant, passive also has a role:

He was run over.


The song was sung.

So don’t abandon the passive voice entirely. It does have a stigma attached to it, but it is still a vlaid form of communication.


РRussell Proctor