02 Dec What’s the passive voice? We reveal all (or all will be revealed?)
Whether you know the term or not, you’ve probably used the passive voice in your writing (maybe without even noticing it).
It’s a way of tweaking your sentence structure to shift your reader’s focus away from the ‘doer’. It can be pretty handy!
But any grammar nerd will tell you: there’s a time and a place for that kind of magic. So we’re going to shed light on when and where to be passive.
First up – what’s the passive voice?
Think about your average sentence. It usually goes something like this:
> Nikki | eats | the pineapple
Subject, verb, object. Easy!
That’s how we write in the active voice. But say we didn’t care too much about Nikki and wanted to shift the focus onto the pineapple instead. We might say:
> The pineapple | is eaten | by Nikki
Object, verb, subject. Crazy.
What you’ve done here is move from the active to the passive voice.
The passive voice also lets you do something especially cunning. Let’s go back to Nikki and her penchant for pineapple. Say she wasn’t meant to eat the pineapple, and someone asked: ‘Hey Nikki, where’s the pineapple?’
Nikki might say:
> The pineapple | was eaten
By whom? Who knows. And that’s the point. The passive voice lets you drop the subject (the ‘doer’) from an action. More on this later.
Should I use active voice or passive voice?
Here at Refresh Marketing, we love the active voice.
When you put the ‘doer’ at the start of your sentence, you’re presenting information the way your audience expects it. It’s easy to follow, sounds more human – making it easier to read. Which is better for your readers.
How do I swap passive voice for active voice?
One way to re-write something in the active voice is to find the subject (the ‘doer’) and put it first.
> A typo | was made | by Zach
> Zach | made | a typo
Another way is to change the verb and subject completely:
> New writing rules | were brought in
> We | have | new writing rules
> There | are | new writing rules
Sometimes there won’t be anything better than the passive construction. And that’s ok! Trying a different approach is still a good habit to get into. It helps you get out of tired writing styles and think more deeply about getting your message across – clearly.
All that said, there’s still a time and a place for the passive.
When should I use the passive voice?
If you’re having trouble converting your passive sentence into an active one, it might be because in that particular scenario, passive is the right call. Because the passive voice can do a few things the active voice can’t.
1. Emphasise the object. Sometimes the person who did it is less important than the thing they did it to, so you want to focus on that.
> Hundreds of renaissance paintings, believed to be lost, were found by workers on an urban construction site.
2. Leave out the boring bits. If the subject is implied (or doesn’t really matter) don’t bore your readers with the extra words.
> The man was sentenced to life on a crocodile infested island.
3. Don’t blame the wrong guy: Maybe you don’t even know who the ‘doer’ is. Best not to speculate, right?
> The poodle was stolen from outside Woollies.
When should I avoid the passive voice?
There are a couple of ways the passive voice can let your writing down.
1. Dodging the blame. If you’ve made a mistake, don’t use the passive to avoid saying so – it’s guaranteed to tick your reader off (presumably more than they already are).
> Your order was lost on the way to the kitchen.
> We lost your order while taking it to the kitchen.
2. Overcomplicating things. Sometimes the passive voice makes you use more words than you need to – and sound a little robotic while you’re at it.
> Lights are turned off by management at 9pm.
> We turn off the lights at 9pm.
How do I tell if something is in the passive voice?
There are a few things that’ll help you figure this out
1. Look for the subject (the ‘doer’). If it’s at the start of the sentence, it’s in the active voice. If it’s at the end – or not there at all – it’s in the passive voice.
2. Look for the word ‘by’. If the sentence says that something was done by someone or something, it’s in the passive voice.
3. See if you can add ‘by a dinosaur’ to the end. No, seriously. If it’s in the passive voice and the subject has been dropped (by a dinosaur), your sentence will still be perfectly grammatical when you add it to the end. If a little unbelievable.
Ready to brush up on your active and passive voice a little further? See when our next writing workshop is!