Passive Voice

by Laura Richardson, PWC Fellow

Godzilla crossed the road.
The road was crossed by Godzilla.

One of the sentences above is active; the other is passive. What are the differences between these sentences and sentiments? Does passive voice really make that big of a difference in your writing? Why does it sometimes seem like your FWIS instructors are pulling out their hair to get you to stop using this construction?

You want your writing to work for you, which is to say, toward what you mean to communicate. Strong verbs, clear syntax, assertive diction, and an academic tone are all tools that help you construct persuasive and compelling papers; these tools become extensions of your arguments, signifying your intellectual property on the page. Passive voice, or PV, as it’s known in my classes, is a weak, flimsy tool that just doesn’t work hard enough for you and your writing.

Here’s why:

PV’s major offense is its omission of a sentence’s actor. In the statements that begin this article, we could easily remove “by Godzilla” and still have a complete sentence, “The road was crossed.” When you write sentences like this in your papers, you invite vagueness—the sworn enemy of all good academic communication—into your work. Leaving out the actor who crossed the road is one of the more innocuous examples of this PV turpitude. Consider the implications of:

A mistake was made.

Richard Nixon used the first sentence several times while discussing his administration’s illegal actions. Politicians use the passive voice all the time to distance themselves from culpability. While you watch the presidential debates, listen for the PV and think about how this construction functions as a political tool.

The sheriff was shot.

The narrator of Bob Marley’s song takes responsibility for the sheriff’s death, unlike the sentence above. How would the song’s message change if it were written in the passive voice? Concealing the verb’s actor can completely reverse a sentence’s intent.
 

They were discriminated against.

In addition to leaving perpetrators unnamed, PV is also a longer, clunky construction. If you’re one of those people who dislike ending sentences with prepositions, PV can put you in a precarious position.

SO. Get rid of it! Take it out! Eliminate it! Eradicate it! Remove the fiendish form! Basta!

But what is the passive voice? What does it look like? How can you avoid it? There’s no use playing V for Vendetta against PV unless you can recognize its sneaky iniquity.
 

WHAT IT IS

The passive voice is a grammatical construction in which the object of the action becomes the grammatical subject of the sentence.

ACTIVE

Godzilla crossed the road.
[subject] [verb/action] [object]

PASSIVE

The road was crossed by Godzilla.
[grammatical subject] [verb/action] [agent]
 

PV VERB CONSTRUCTION

The passive voice verb construction consists of some form of the auxiliary verb “to be” and a past participle:

was crossed
were visited
has been eaten
will be painted

Because the basic formulation of PV means the object becomes the subject, only transitive verbs can participate in passivity. For example, there’s no way to make this sentence passive:

Cecilia went to the drugstore.

“Went” is an intransitive verb that doesn’t take a direct object. You can’t “went something.” However, we can turn Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics into the passive voice because their verbs, “break” and “shake,” are transitive:

Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart.
My heart is being broken by you, Cecilia.

You’re shaking my confidence, baby.
My confidence is being shaken by you, baby.

 

CHECKLIST

If you’re staring at a sentence you just wrote, wondering whether it’s PV, try this handy checklist:

  • Is the actor (“doer”) in my sentence? (If you don’t know how to find the actor, find the main verb and add an “er” to it, e.g., Godzilla is the “crosser” and Cecilia is the “shaker.”)
  • If the actor is in my sentence, does the preposition “by” NOT precede it? In other words, is the actor actually performing the action?

If you can check both of those boxes, you’re in the clear!
 

PRACTICE

Convert these sentences to the active voice:

  1. The apple was devoured by the dinosaur on Tuesday.
  2. Every word is pronounced with precision, emphasizing the importance of the spoken word.
  3. Her brains were eaten by zombies.
  4. Vengeance was had.
  5. Grammatical errors will be corrected.

Convert these sentences to the passive voice:

  1. Chelsea Morin understands the passive voice.
  2. The film complicates the relationship between mother and son.
  3. After eating dinner, Neil watches Game of Thrones on Sunday.
  4. Macklemore visited the thrift shop.
  5. I came in like a wrecking ball.


ANSWERS

  1. The dinosaur devoured the apple on Tuesday.
  2. She pronounces every word with precision, emphasizing the importance of the spoken word. (Tip: You’ve got to add a subject to PV sentences that don’t have an actor. See #s 4 and 5, too.)
  3. Zombies ate her brains.
  4. AnaMaria Seglie had vengeance.
  5. Kira Chen will correct grammatical errors.
  6. The passive voice is understood by Chelsea Morin.
  7. The relationship between mother and son is complicated by the film.
  8. Game of Thrones is watched by Neil on Sunday after he eats dinner.
  9. The thrift shop was visited by Macklemore.
  10. Trick question! “Come” is an intransitive verb.
     

Laura Richardson received her PhD from Rice in June 2015. Her areas of research cover a diverse array of topics, including modernism, women’s literature, poetics, celebrity studies, science fiction, film studies, and Harold Pinter. She is an associate at Martel College, an avid karaokist, and an national amateur billiards champion.