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How to Avoid Passive Voice

What are the benefits of learning how to avoid passive voice? If you want your writing to be clear and concise and improve your search engine optimization, you will want to eliminate as much passive voice from your writing as possible. In this article, you will learn what passive voice is, how to avoid passive voice, and how to identify passive voice.

how to not use passive voice

What Is Passive Voice?

Before you can learn how to avoid passive voice, you need to understand what it is. There are two types of writing voices: active and passive. To understand passive voice, you should first understand active voice. Active voice is comprised of a subject and an object in that order. For example, I ran a mile, is written in active voice. Who ran the mile is clear. I ran the mile.

In contrast, passive voice is a grammatical construction where the subject and the object switch places. For example, “A mile was run.” Passive voice sentence constructions can obscure the subject. The way this sentence is written, we do not know who ran the mile, we just know that one was run. This type of sentence construction is often used to deflect blame. As the subject is not immediately obvious, it can come off as deceitful and unprofessional. 

A sentence written in passive voice can also be written as a mile was run by me. While the subject is not completely obscured in this sentence, it is not front and center. This way of writing emphasizes the object rather than the subject. Passive voice also creates needlessly wordy sentences. The fewer words you can use to get across the same idea, the better. 

Passive voice is by no means a grammatical error. In fact, it does have its place in writing. Avoiding passive voice is generally a way to improve writing clarity and concision. As such, active voice is generally the better choice.

How to Not Use Passive Voice

Now that you know what passive voice is, it is time to learn how to avoid passive voice. Learning how to not use passive voice might take a bit to learn, especially if you have never thought about it while writing before. Some people just have a natural affinity for using passive voice and it takes a little longer to unlearn it. 

Practically any sentence written in passive voice can be reorganized into active voice once you can recognize a passive voice construction. From there all you need to do is reorganize the sentence into an active construction. Of course, this is easier said than done. If you can learn how to not use passive voice from the beginning, editing will be much faster.

When you are constructing a sentence, put the most important information first. This will likely be a noun that is completing an action. This will be the subject. Put whatever the action is being done to at the end of the sentence. This will be the direct object. The verb will sit in the middle of the subject and direct object. If you can do that, you have learned how to avoid passive voice and can now create more engaging content written in active voice.

active voice vs passive voice

How to Identify Passive Voice

Now it is time to identify passive voice within your own writing. While many of these methods are not fool-proof, they are an excellent place to start when you are identifying passive voice in your own writing. Before you can learn how to avoid passive voice, you need to learn how to identify passive voice. If you are really struggling to identify and fix passive voice, consider hiring someone to help you.

To Be Verbs

An easy way to identify passive voice is to scan your writing for to be verbs. The “to be” verbs are: are, was, were, am, been, and being. Oftentimes, to be verbs are a red flag for passive voice. Here is an example of a passive voice sentence construction using the form of the verb “to be”. 

“The road has been paved” or “The road has been paved by her.” 

This sentence uses the to be verb “has been” and is written in passive voice. To fix this sentence, you should remove the to be verb and reorganize the sentence to include a clear subject at the beginning. Here is one way to make this sentence active: “She paved the road.” 

It is important to note that while the use of to be verbs can signal passive voice, it is not always an indication of passive voice. While you should work to remove as many to be verbs as you can for better clarity and concussion, they do not always mean the sentence is written in passive voice. 

“She has to pave the road soon” is not written in passive voice even though it uses a to be verb. Instead, the use of a to be verb here indicates the fact that the subject, she, has not completed the action yet, but will eventually. It helps point to the time the action is taking place rather than a passive sentence construction. As such, it is important to check each sentence using “to be” verbs and check where the person doing the action is located in the sentence.

passive voice

Subject and Direct Object Placement

Identifying passive voice might just come down to noticing the placement of the subject and direct object of the sentence. A sentence is comprised of a subject, verb, and direct object. In discussing passive voice, we will concern ourselves with the subject and direct object. The subject refers to the word or words taking an action. It is likely a noun: person, place, thing, animal, or idea. They are the doer of the sentence. Here is an example of a subject within active sentences.

She watered the flowers.”

The direct object of a sentence refers to what the subject acting upon. The subject is doing the verb to the direct object. Here is an example of a direct object in the same active sentence.

“She watered the flowers.”

In a passive sentence construction, the subject and direct object will be flipped or the subject might not appear at all. Here is the same sentence written in passive voice.

“The flowers were watered by her.” or “The flowers were watered.”

The direct object of active sentence construction becomes the subject of passive sentence construction. To identify passive sentence constructions in your writing, find the sentence where the noun doing the action is either not included (You need to add “by insert noun here” to the end of the sentence to understand who or what is completing the action) or where the noun completing the action is at the end of the sentence. Flip the subject and direct object to change a passive sentence into an active sentence. In the process, you will likely get to take out a few words, adding to concision and clarity.

Platforms

If you have trouble identifying passive voice on your own, there are platforms to help you. While there are many programs to help you identify and fix passive voice issues, they are not perfect. Review the suggestions offered by the platform before accepting the suggestions. Most of the time these grammar programs offer correct suggestions, but as they are built by and learn from human behavior and grammar can get complicated, they are not foolproof. 

writing with passive voice

Grammarly

Grammarly is a very popular program that helps writers catch their mistakes. The free version only does spelling, grammar, and punctuation checks. But for $12 per month, Grammarly offers a premium service. This service can help you identify and fix passive voice sentence constructions to improve the clarity and concision of your writings. 

Ginger

Ginger is a writing program that can help you identify and rephrase passive sentences into active sentences. This program is free, but if you want to unlock all the features for unlimited uses you need to buy the premium option. Plans start at $12.48 per month per year.

WhiteSmoke

WhiteSmoke is another option to correct passive voice. It is easy to install and available in multiple languages, It will mark instances where you use the passive voice and give suggestions on how to change it when the AI can. It color-codes all the types of errors you make for easy identification. 

identifying passive voice

Exceptions

You always want to choose the sentence construction that highlights the most important information first. Most of the time, active voice will accomplish this better than passive voice, but there are rare exceptions. While active voice is normally the best choice, there is a place for passive voice sentence constructions. If you do not know who the noun taking the action is, passive voice might be your only option. 

Let’s take the earlier example, “Sarah stole my money.” 

What do you do if you do not know who stole the money? You will have to write the sentence as “My money was stolen.” Who was the money stolen by? If you do not know, then passive voice is acceptable.  The sentence could be written as “Someone stole my money,” but in this case, the action is more important than who took the action, so using a passive sentence construction might actually be the better choice.

Edit Your Writing

Learning how to avoid passive voice and use passive voice is going to come down to practice. If you are unsure which voice a sentence is in, identify the subject and direct object. Ask yourself what is doing the verb and who is the verb being done to. While avoiding passive voice is not the only tip you need to keep in mind while writing, it is an important one. It will take some time, but once you understand how to avoid passive voice, your writing clarity and concision will improve.

FAQ:

  • What is a to be verb?
  • What is active voice?
  • How do I fix passive voice?
  • What are good programs to help fix passive voice?
  • What are the subject and direct object of a sentence?

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