The Red Pen: To pass, or not to pass…on passive voice

Passive (aggressive) voice might be appropriate for those mildly shade-throwing work emails that get CC’d to your boss, but should you nix it in your writing?


What is passive voice?

When we’re talking about voice in grammar, we’re talking about what part of a clause is on the receiving end of the action—the subject, or an object. In our fast-paced world, we’ve grown accustomed to active voice, which generally takes the SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT form in which something is acted upon by whatever precedes it. In active voice, the subject enacts the verb.

Example: The officer drew his gun.

                 SUBJECT    VERB    OBJECT

Active voice is the literary equivalent of a high-speed car chase on prime time, or a riveting college basketball play-by-play. The case for active voice is sometimes most obvious in its absence, as the ridiculousness of the following mock sportscast shows:

Example: “The ball was shot by him, and the point was scored by him!” (vs. “He shoots, he scores!”)

This is passive voice in the extreme. Here, the subject (the ball) receives the action of the verb, instead of taking the dominant position and acting upon an object. What makes the passive voice so glaring in this example is that it completely undermines the pace and excitement of the game. Aside from that, since using passive voice often involves helping verbs or prepositions, it can seem clunky. Maybe this is why your third grade teacher spent all that time rapping knuckles whenever you used passive voice.

When to aggressively use passive voice

But there’s a time and a place for everything, and passive voice is no exception. In some cases, it can help your writing. Let’s look at two instances in which passive voice makes a sentence stronger.

Passive voice for emphasis:

Passive version: Six thousand endangered northern fur seals were hunted this year.

The seals, though the subject of the sentence, didn’t do the hunting, of course; they were themselves hunted. If we wanted a subject that is acting instead of acted upon, we could have put it this way:

Active version: Fur traders hunted six thousand endangered northern fur seals this year.

However, to put the hunters in that leading subject slot undercuts the gut punch of your sentence. The sheer number of seals lost is what engages readers’ shock, and that should be the focal point.

Passive voice for suspense:

If you’re a mystery writer, you know that keeping the tension in your story is critical in creating a page-turning whodunit. Artfully applied passive voice can work for you in maintaining that tautness. Want to put off your reveal? Tease out the apprehension with passive voice.

Example: The dead body had been straightened out, with arms folded neatly across the chest.

Who killed him? You’ll have to wait another sixteen chapters to find that out!

The bottom line

Make your sentences work for you, not against you. Voice—whether active or passive—is one of the many tools in your arsenal that can propel your plot, create your mood, and engage your reader.



Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and junior college level.

Need a more aggressive approach to passive voice? Click here to learn about Pink Umbrella Editing Services, and follow our blog for writing and editing tips.

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