How to Identify and Fix Passive Voice
There are many things that go into a well-written essay or article. Respectable source material, relevant examples, and content organization. Each of these are essential components in crafting a successful piece of writing. While these things make up the “what” of a written work, the “how” is equally important. For example, which words best convey meaning? Is the tone casual or formal? Among these considerations is the choice between active or passive voice: deciding how the subject and direct object are organized in relation to one another in a sentence.
Active and passive voice apply only to sentences with both a subject and direct object. For example, the sentence “The wolf howled” does not have a direct object. Adding on, “The wolf howled at the moon” creates a sentence with both a subject (the wolf) and direct object (the moon).
Active voice is generally considered a more direct, concise approach to sentence construction. In academic writing—whether you’re writing a history paper or English essay—active voice is preferred. This is because it requires fewer words to get a point across, and provides the most clarity about the subject and its relationship to the direct object. For this reason, passive voice is preferable in some instances, like when the subject is unknown or irrelevant, e.g. “The top-secret dossier was delivered.”
Defining Active Voice
In a sentence with active voice, the subject “acts upon” the verb. The example in the introduction (“The wolf howled at the moon”) is written in active voice.
Defining Passive Voice
In a sentence with passive voice, the subject of a sentence is being “acted upon” by the verb. To change the example in the introduction from active voice to passive voice, a writer would reverse the sentence order so that the sentence becomes, “The moon was howled at by the wolf.” In this sentence, using passive voice muddies what was otherwise a clear, concise sentence.
How to Identify and Rewrite Passive Voice
Knowing whether a sentence is written in active or passive voice starts with identifying the parts of speech—specifically the subject, action verb, and direct object.
For visual learners, it’s useful to highlight these parts of speech and draw an arrow from the subject to the direct object. If the subject comes after the direct object (or does not exist in the sentence) and the sentence includes a form of “to be”—then the sentence is likely written in passive voice. A little confusing, right? Typically, passive voice is one of the hardest things for students to understand, identify, and fix. Check out this detailed resource (Active and Passive Voice) from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab.
Writers can change a sentence from active voice to passive voice by identifying the subject and placing it at the beginning of the sentence.
But, there are some instances in which passive voice should be used:
- As noted above, for sentences in which the subject is unknown or irrelevant, or the writer would prefer not to name them.
- To stress the action of the sentence over the actor, e.g. “The bill was passed in 1902”; “The monument was completed in early March.”
- Authoritative statements/rules, e.g. “Children must be supervised when the lifeguard is off-duty.”
While there are appropriate times to use either active or passive voice, there are a few mistakes to look out for in their application:
- Using passive voice can create a dangling modifier—a phrase or word that’s not explicitly stated in the sentence, e.g. “Once he finished cooking dinner, the movie was started.” In this sentence, it isn’t clear that someone finished cooking dinner and started a movie, but appears that the movie finished cooking dinner and started itself.
- Other common mistakes include switching from active voice to passive voice mid-sentence, e.g. “She started her homework on time, but it was completed after the due date.” The first part of the sentence is written in active voice, while the second half is written in passive voice. The sentence rewritten in active voice reads: “She started her homework on time, but completed it after the due date.”
WriteLab Can Help You Identify and Fix Passive Voice
WriteLab helps writers identify the use of passive voice and provides revision suggestions to change sentences to active voice. These prompts are provided under the Clarity feature during draft analysis.
Let’s look at a couple quick examples of how WriteLab addresses passive voice:
Example 1: “The homework was started.”
WriteLab’s Comment: Who started the homework?
Revision: “Jane started her homework.”
Example 2: “Every day dozens of people are accepted to their program.”
WriteLab’s Comment: Instead of using the passive voice with Every day dozens of people are accepted to their program, try converting your verb into the active voice by specifying who accepts every day dozens to their program.
Revision: “Every day the Peace Crops accepts dozens of people into their program.”
Example 3: “Rose, Bailey, and Jaggers all agree that students' potentials aren't being accessed.”
WriteLab’s Comment: Instead of using the passive voice with students' potentials aren't being accessed, try converting your verb into the active voice by specifying who is not accessing students' potentials.
Revision: “Rose, Bailey, and Jaggers all agree that students can’t access their full potential.”
For more information on passive voice, visit the WriteLab Guide.
WriteLab is an online writing platform that offers immediate, actionable responses to your prose as you draft, revise, and polish your writing.