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Avoiding the Passive Voice

What is passive voice?

Grammatically, the passive voice is made up of a "be" verb and a past participle.
It conveys action without revealing the subject responsible for the action.

Here are some examples of passive voice: is believed, was seen, will be considered, are shown.  Take a look at these passive voice sentences:

The ball was thrown by the boy.
The bridge was built by J. P. Bridge Company.
Taxes will be raised by Congress.
Certain rights were demanded.

What is wrong with passive voice?

Take a look at these 'active voice' sentences:

The boy threw the ball.
J. P. Bridge Company built the bridge.
Congress will raise taxes.
They demanded certain rights.

Can you tell the difference?  The second group of sentences are clearer and more direct. Also, passive voice often leads to wordy, weak writing.

The following paragraph is written in passive voice:

The shelter is owned by the town, but the facility is run by members of the humane society and supported, in part, by funds raised by them. Most of the operating expenses, however, are paid by the town.

Now read this revised paragraph:

Although the town owns the shelter and pays most of the operating expenses, members of the humane society run the facility and provide additional support through fund raising.

The second paragraph is more direct then the first.  By looking at these two paragraphs, you can see how passive voice can lead to wordiness in your writing.

Are there other reasons why I should avoid using passive voice in my writing?
Another problem with passive voice is that it comes across as evasive; it is the language of politics. Consider the following sentences, which all skirt the issue by not answering the question, "By whom?":

"The senator admits that privileges are abused."
"Because of increased import fees, prices will be raised next week"
"Appropriate measures will be taken."
"My car needs to be washed."

Is it ever okay to use passive voice?
Yes. Passive voice is valuable when the actor (the person doing the action) is not known or unimportant:

"The bank was robbed last night."
(The robber's identity is not known, or the speaker is simply most interested in the fact that the robbery happened.)

"The bridge was completed on April 3."
(Here, the date is more important than the name of the bridge-building company, if the speaker even knows the name.)

Passive voice can be difficult to avoid in some situations.   Try to keep away from it as often as you can, especially in formal writing. 

Remember, the OWL is here to help!  If you ever have problems or questions, just ask!



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