7 Examples of Passive Voice (And How To Fix Them)

By Mark Nichol

The sentence construction “(noun) (verb phrase) by (noun)” is known as passive voice or passive construction, because the true subject is relegated to the end of the sentence and is thus acted on, rather than acting, which often weakens the statement.

The solution is simple: Give the focal point of the sentence its due — “(noun) (verb) (noun),” and demote the false subject to the back of the line. Note that not every passive construction is evil — sometimes what seems to be the false subject is worthy of prominence — but a preponderance of passive constructions leads to a wearying read.

1. “There is a considerable range of expertise demonstrated by the spam senders.”

The actors in this little drama are the spam spenders — or, to be more active, the spam senders are the actors in this little drama. Direct them center stage, and send the weak “there is” opening packing to the provinces: “The spam senders demonstrate a considerable range of expertise.”

2. “It was determined by the committee that the report was inconclusive.”

Again, the subject is weak and indeterminate. Two actors, the committee and the report, are vying for the lead role here, but committee is the bearer of the news about the report, and to place the report the head of the sentence would be to replace one passive sentence with another. Attend to the actors: “The committee determined that the report was inconclusive.”

3. “We were invited by our neighbors to attend their party.”

We is stronger than it as a sentence opener, but “our neighbors” is stronger still: “Our neighbors invited us to attend their party.”

4. “Groups help participants realize that most of their problems and secrets are shared by others in the group.”

This sentence starts off actively but then turns and bellies up in the middle; emphasizing “others in the group” over “most of their problems and secrets” makes the sentence more active: “Groups help participants realize that others in the group share most of their problems and secrets.”

5. “The proposed initiative will be bitterly opposed by abortion rights groups.”

The content may be about the proposed initiative, but that doesn’t preclude given a sentence about it a more dynamic structure: “Abortion rights groups will bitterly oppose the proposed initiative.”

6. “Minor keys, modal movement, and arpeggios are shared by both musical traditions.”

The writer is detailing key information at the head of this sentence, but starting off with the context is stronger: “Both musical traditions share minor keys, modal movement, and arpeggios.”

7. “In this way, the old religion was able to survive the onslaught of new ideas until the old gods were finally displaced by Christianity.”

Remember when I wrote that not every passive voice should be targeted for reconstruction? This sentence is more active, but no more correct: “In this way, the old religion was able to survive the onslaught of new ideas until Christianity finally displaced the old gods.” Perhaps the newcomer, Christianity, should also come later in the sentence.

Again, don’t indiscriminately exterminate passive construction at the expense of the writer’s voice or intent, but do exercise judicial revision to rejuvenate pallid prose.

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11 Responses to “7 Examples of Passive Voice (And How To Fix Them)”

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for the reminder. I do my best not to overuse passive voice but it happens. I won’t eliminate it all together but will be more vigilant.

  • Levi Montgomery

    Life’s First Rule of Everything is “Always identify the problem.” If the problem is weak writing, it is seldom going to be because of the use of passive voice, and there is nothing about passive voice that inherently requires “fixing.”

    “Don’t you see? The patient was murdered by his own doctor!”

    That’s not a weak sentence, there’s nothing passive about it except in the strict technical sense, and it certainly does not avoid stating agency.

    But don’t take my word for it:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2922

  • Ken O’Quinn

    I applaud Mr. Nichol’s intent, in the interests of a simple, direct sentence, but I am not so sure “the solution is simple,” as stated in the second paragraph.

    Almost everyone raised in the U.S. school system learned not to use the passive voice, though many people, even as well-educated professionals, do not fully understand what it is. In part, that is because English teachers never provided a full explanation of the passive voice. It has more words than an active structure, and it inverts the natural order (active voice is the default structure of English), so for generations, people have been cautioned against using it.

    What teachers should have told us was to strive for the active voice but recognize that there is nothing wrong with passive and that sometimes it is a more practical choice than the active. Great writers have used the passive voice when necessary for 300 years. It is an indispensable part of good writing; you simply need to know when to use it and when not to.

    What teachers failed to teach us was the notion of cohesion. If we wrote, “We have a new vacation schedule. It was approved last week by the school board’s special study committee on policies and procedures,” we were told to rewrite the second one to make it active. That’s because the teacher looked at the sentence, identified it as having a passive structure and directed us to write it actively.

    But readers of English do not read sentences in isolation; we read sentences in relation to the one we just read and to the one we are leading into. A sign of good writing is whether the reader can breeze through the text, moving fluidly from one thought to the next, easily seeing how they are related. What the passive voice allows us to do is position a subject up front that seamlessly connects the thought to the previous one.

    Embedded in the notion of cohesion is the old/new principle. You position “old,” or familiar, information up front, and you withhold new information until later in the sentence. “Familiar” means you referred to this topic in a previous sentence, so it’s not new to the reader.

    When your brain enters a sentence, it derives most of the meaning from the verb and the object. It does not want to confront a new, unfamiliar subject at the start of the sentence because it is jarring and causes a momentary interruption in the flow of the reading.

    Using the example above. If the second sentence sentence started with “The school board’s special study committee on policies and procedures,” that would be new information (assuming you did not refer to it previously), and it would be awkward to the reader, who is wondering, “What is this?” That active voice also would push the pronoun “it” to a secondary part of the sentence, too far from the previous thought. “It” should be up front in the second sentence to establish that linkage.

    In such a sequence as this, if there is a way to make the second sentence active and still keep “it” or some other reference to the new policy as the subject, then that’s ideal because it accomplishes both goals, efficiency and cohesion.

    The active voice is terrific, but before you impulsively rush to change a passive structure to an active one, see how both versions will fit with the previous sentence.

  • Mark Nichol

    Levi:

    Right you are. Passive voice is often the most appropriate construction. But writers in general too easily and too frequently invert the emphasis in a sentence, and the result is listless writing. By all means, employ a passive construction when it fits the context, as in your example. But make a conscious decision.

  • Mark Nichol

    Ken:

    You make an excellent point with a clear, well-reasoned argument, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. Perhaps I should have extended my final comment to emphasize the cautions you and Levi present. Of course, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my examples are necessarily taken out of context.

    The take-away: Don’t blindly adhere to grammar and syntax rules, but be able to justify deviation from them. (In “Don’t you see? The patient was murdered by his own doctor!,” the patient is, appropriately, the subject, and the sentence is more dramatically effective with passive construction.)

  • Trisha Giramma

    Typo in explanatory paragraph to tip one – spam “spenders”.

  • Mark Nichol

    Trisha:

    Oops. Good catch. English language 1, spellcheck 0.

  • Lynne Kuechle

    “Last week, the school board’s special study committee approved our new vacation schedule.”

    The revision requires fewer words, uses active voice, and emphasizes “vacation schedule” by putting it at the end.

  • Saurabh

    Each example has ‘by’ which is a clear giveaway that it is a passive sentence. Changing such a sentence into active voice is not difficult. Many internet articles are written in third person. About 70-80 percent sentences in such articles are in passive voice. I wonder if that is a wrong way to write.

  • Gail Siegel

    This is a great summary. I’m a communications director for a large agency, and I just sent it around to my whole staff. I’ve had to train almost every new hire out of using passive construction–college term paper habits. Your explanation is much clearer than my years of hectoring.

  • Dan Richards

    “Groups help participants realize that most of their problems and secrets are shared by others in the group.”
    You say this starts out strong, and then goes belly up. This sentence goes belly up from the start. I had to read it three times to even try to understand what was being talked about, as the first of it left me wondering what this was about.
    “The Groups Helped participants”, “Those groups were helping participants” makes much more sense and understandable. Then the rest of the sentence fits much nicer together.
    “Groups help participants realize that most of their problems and secrets are shared by others in the group.”

    “The groups helped participants realize that most of their problems and secrets were shared by others in their group.”

    Without the beginning being changed, the rest would not have mattered; because the reader would have been confused at the beginning.

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