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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!


When should I use 'a' and 'an'?

Use 'A' or 'AN' with singular countable nouns whose specific identity is not known to the reader.

The identity may be unknown because it is being mentioned for the first time, or because it is unknown even to the writer. A usually means "one among many" but can also mean "any one."

'A' is used before a word beginning with a consonant sound: a banana, a hand, a show.
'AN' is used before a word beginning with a vowel sound: an eagle, an honor, an ox.
Notice that it is the vowel sound that matters: a hand, an honor.

When should I use 'the'?

Use 'the' with most nouns whose specific identity is know to the reader.

Usually the noun will be clear to the reader for one of the following reasons:

(1) the noun has been previously mentioned
(2) A phrase or clause following the noun restricts its identity
(3) A superlative such as best makes the noun's identity specific
(4) The noun describes a unique person, place, or thing
(5) The context or situation makes the noun's identity clear


We found a nice apartment by the lake. The apartment has two bedrooms and a fireplace. The fireplace will be nice this winter.
(The identity of the apartment and fireplace are known after they are mentioned the first time.)

A speeding car nearly hit me. Three police cars followed it. Later, I found out that the car had been stolen, and the driver was arrested.
(The identity of the car is known after it is mentioned once. The identity of the driver is clear because he or she is specifically the driver of the stolen car.)

Lauren dated a tall boy, but Nicole dated the tallest boy in the school.
(Lauren's boyfriend was one of many tall boys, so his identity isn't specific. However, we know exactly who Nicole's boyfriend is: the tallest boy.)

Do not look directly at the sun.
(There is only one sun in our solar system. so its identity is clear.)

Remember! Do not use 'a' or 'an' with plural or uncountable nouns.

How can I get better?

Typically, articles are one of the most difficult grammatical concepts for students who are learning English. The rules always have exceptions, and some uses of articles are nearly impossible for native English speakers to explain. The best ways to learn articles are to PRACTICE WRITING and to READ.

'There', 'Their', 'They're' AND 'Its', 'It's', 'Its''

'There' can be used to indicate a place or direction:

Let's go over there.
Have you ever been there?
A nice man lives there.

'There' can also act as the meaningless subject of a sentence:

There are thirteen stripes on the American flag.
There is no cure for the common cold.

'Their' is the possessive form of "they."

They own this car. This is their car. This car is theirs.
Where is their car? It is over there.

They're is a contraction which always means "they are."

They're leaving for the restaurant at six o'clock.
They're bringing their three children, and they're expecting us to meet them.

Note: Avoid using contractions such as this in formal writing.

We will meet them there. We can look for their car outside of the restaurant when we get there.

See? 'It's not too bad. Speaking of 'its', let's talk about the uses of its, it's, and its'.

'Its' is the possessive form of "it."

The dog whimpered because its bowl was empty.
New York is an exciting city, but its streets are too crowded for me.
The antique table was quite valuable, but then someone broke its leg.

'It's' is a contraction which always means "it is."

It's too hot to go outside.
New York is an exciting city, but it's too crowded for me.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Note: Avoid using contractions is formal writing.

Its' does not exist.

Using Apostrophes to Show Possession

Use an apostrophe to indicate that a noun is possessive.

Usually, possessive nouns indicate ownership.

Example: The dog belongs to Bob. This is Bob's dog.

Sometimes, however, "ownership" is only loosely implied:

Example: I was fired after the long day's work.
Spanish is Rick's native language.
The tree's roots are making the sidewalk crack.

To know whether a noun is possessive, try putting it into an of phrase (it might not sound great, but it should make sense).

Examples: the dog of Bob; the work of a long day; the native language of Rick; the roots of the tree.

'S, s', s's? which one should I use? How can I know?

If the noun does not end in -s, add -'s. (This applies to both singular and plural nouns.)

Example: Roy climbed out on the driver's side.
Thank you for refunding the children’s money.

If the noun is singular and ends in -s, add -'s.

Example: Louis’s sister spent last year in India.
The grass's healthy green color is fading because of the draught.

However, if pronunciation becomes awkward because of the added -'s, you can use just the apostrophe. Either use is acceptable.

Example: Moses' experiences are recounted in the Old Testament.
The Beatles' last live performance occurred on the roof of this building.

If the noun is plural and ends in -s, add only an apostrophe.

Example: The cats’ food dishes are missing.
The books’ covers are missing.

Common Uses of Commas

Here are the four most common uses of commas:

1. Use a comma before the conjunction in a compound sentence. A compound sentence is made up of two complete sentences, with a conjunction (and, but, or, yet) between them.

I like ice cream, and Bob likes cake.

Commas can be very confusing, but I need to learn to use them correctly.

Carol and Harvey are my two best friends, but I do not see them as often as I would like because we live so far apart.

2. If you start a sentence with an introductory phrase or clause, put a comma after it. These introductory phrases often start with words like when, because, before, if, and as.

Because I like ice cream, I want to eat it every day.

After you have more practice using, commas, you will be more comfortable with them.

Even though they never win the Super Bowl, and in spite of the problems with their coaches, the Oilers are my favorite football team.

3. If you include extra information within your sentence, be sure to put commas around it. These extra phrases often start with words like which or who. Notice that you should be able to remove that extra phrase from of the sentence, without destroying the sentence.

Ice cream, which is my favorite food, is too fattening. (Notice that you can remove the extra phrase, and the sentence still makes sense: Ice cream is too fattening.)

Commas, though important, are very confusing. (Or: Commas are very confusing.)

It seemed like the winter of 1993-94, with all its ice, snow, and wind, was never going to end. (Or: It seemed like the winter of 1993-94 was never going to end.)

4. Use commas to separate items in a list of three or more.

My favorite ice cream flavors are vanilla bean, chocolate chip, and coffee.

Colons, semicolons, and quotation marks can be frustrating and annoying.

After we explored Germany, admired Luxembourg, and fell in love with Prague, we were ready to come back to America, eat some "real food," and relax.