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Passive Voice: How to Use It Correctly

In passive voice, this can be the person or thing experiencing the action of the verb, as opposed to active voice, where the subject is the thing, person, or place that performs the action.

Milena Lazova
Milena Lazova

Passive voice may sound too complicated in the beginning, but once you learn the basics of it, you’ll see it’s not that hard. Although it’s generally considered the less preferred voice in English writing, sometimes it’s necessary to use it.

That’s why knowing when to use it and when to avoid it is useful to anyone who wants to sound more like a native speaker.

What Is Passive Voice?

Did you know that each sentence in English must be either in active or passive voice? That’s because we use the voice to tell if the subject in the sentence performs or receives the main action in the sentence.

In passive voice, this can be the person or thing experiencing the action of the verb, as opposed to active voice, where the subject is the thing, person, or place that performs the action.

Here are two passive voice sentences:

The houses were ripped apart by the tornado.
He was beaten to death.

As you can notice from the examples above, the grammatical subjects “the houses” and “he” are the receivers of the action described by the verbs “ripped apart” and “beaten.”

They come first in the sentence, while the doer of the action is optional and is usually introduced with a by-phrase at the end.

The reason why these sentences (or any others) are in passive voice is that the person or thing that experiences the action, in this case, “the houses” and “he,” is more important than the doer of the action. You can completely omit “by the tornado,” and the main point of the sentence will still be delivered as in the second sentence.

Emphasizing the action itself or the receiver of the action rather than the one who performs it is the most common use case of passive voice. In active voice, on the other hand, it’s all about the doer of the action.

Before we discuss some other use cases of passive voice, let’s see how to form it.

How to Form Passive Voice

To make a sentence in passive voice, you need the receiver of the action, which acts as a subject in the sentence, a form of the auxiliary verb “to be,” a past participle of the main verb, and the doer of the action, which is optional.

💡
Subject + to be (am, be, is, are, been, being, was, were) + past participle of a transitive verb + optional by-phrase

Example:

The students were called into the Principal’s office.

When Should You Use Passive Voice?

Even though the active voice makes your writing more powerful and direct, sometimes it’s just not suitable and can make you sound odd. Here’s when using the passive voice is a great idea:

  • When the thing or person acting is unknown, and you want to talk about the action itself:
Ape-themed murals have popped up around the globe.
  • When the doer of the action is not (or least) important, and the focus is on the action or the object or person receiving the action:
Henry Cavil was injured in a car accident this morning.
  • When you want to avoid getting blamed or accusing someone of something but still want to talk about the effects or consequences:
Mistakes were made.
  • When talking about facts or general truth where the doer of the action can be anyone or anything:
Words are made to be spoken.
  • When the most important thing you want to talk about is the action or the receiver of the action:
Penicillin was first discovered in 1928 at a hospital in London. It was a ground-breaking discovery in medicine.
  • When writing scientific research papers, lab results, or in any other scientific context where the experiment or the discovery is more important than the researchers or scientists:
Calcium was bonded with citric acid to help prevent the creation of kidney stones.

When Should You Avoid Passive Voice?

Using passive voice in the wrong situations can make you sound odd and unprofessional. It can also confuse the reader or listener. Therefore, make sure you avoid it when the one performing the action is important. Remember, you don’t need a passive voice when you want to be direct.

Examples:

She ate my meal.
The president of the UK has made public transport free for everyone.

Passive Voice Misuse

Active voice can sometimes be mistaken for passive voice, especially when the sentence includes a form of the verb “to be.” But, using a form of this verb doesn’t automatically make a phrase in passive voice.

To form this voice, you need both a form of the auxiliary verb “to be” (am, were, been, was, etc.) and the main verb in the past participle.

There were many daffodils in the field.

Active voice because it lacks a past participle and only has a form of the verb “to be” (were).

EnglishEnglish Grammar

Milena Lazova

I'm an ESL teacher with over 7 years of experience in providing original content. I really like writing educational articles which may help others learn some aspects of English.


Milena Lazova

I'm an ESL teacher with over 7 years of experience in providing original content. I really like writing educational articles which may help others learn some aspects of English.

Valentina Dordevic

Hello! My name is Valentina. Book digesting is my specialty. I transform book ideas into easy-to-follow summaries, articles, study guides, reviews, essays, analyses, slides, or e-books.

Beth Taylor

Hello! My name is Beth. I'm from France. I'm a French and English native speaker and I really like writing.