Passive voice definition: The passive voice is a style of writing where what would be the object of a sentence becomes the subject of the sentence.
What is Passive Voice?
What does passive voice mean? The passive writing voice occurs when something that is ordinarily “done by” the subject of a sentence is “done by” the object of a sentence.
In the passive writing voice, whatever is doing the action of the sentence is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.
Passive Voice Examples:
- The work was completed by Jaime.
Even though “Jaime” completed the work, “Jaime” is not the grammatical subject of this sentence. The subject of this sentence is “work.”
In passive sentences, the thing that seems to be doing the action will be ordered chronologically after the verb.
- The ball was hit by Johnny.
Again, in this sentence, rather than say, “Johnny hit the ball.” the ball becomes the subject of the sentence.
How is the Passive Voice Formed?
Passive construction: The passive writing voice is formed when what should be the object of a sentence becomes the subject of a sentence.
To construct a sentence in the passive writing voice, the subject will be followed by a “to be” verb with a past participle.
Examples of Passive Voice:
- Start with active voice.
- Austin bought clothes.
- “Austin” is subject; “clothes” is object
- The object becomes the subject.
- The clothes
- Add “to be” and past participle
- The clothes were bought.
- (Optional) Add original subject (and a preposition, when necessary)
- The clothes were bought by Austin.
Passive vs. Active Voice: What’s the Difference?
What is a passive sentence? The passive writing voice occurs when the action is done by what seems like it should be the subject.
What is an active sentence? Active voice occurs when the subject “does” the action of the sentence.
Active Voice Example:
- Shakespeare wrote the play.
In this sentence, Shakespeare is “doing” the action of the sentence.
Active vs. Passive Voice Examples:
- Shakespeare wrote the play. (active)
- The play was written by Shakespeare. (passive)
The subject is typically clearer in active voice whereas in passive voice it may seem like the object is the subject.
- President Barack Obama signed a rescue package on Thursday for financially strapped Puerto Rico, which is facing more than $70 billion in debt and a major payment due Friday. –ABC News (active)
- A bill designed to reclaim businesses that have left the state and better Missouri’s port infrastructure was signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon Tuesday. –The Missouri Times (passive)
Should You Avoid Passive Voice in Writing?
Active voice is usually favored in writing. This is because sentences in the active voice are usually more direct, clear, and concise. They can eliminate confusion, especially in regard to subject identification.
The passive voice is used less frequently in writing. However, it should not be avoided altogether.
Some phrases in English are always stated in the passive voice (i.e. The book was written by Herman Melville).
Stylistically, passive voice can be used as well. The passive voice can add style when:
- the writer wants the “punch” to be at the end of a sentence;
- the agent is unknown or unimportant (i.e. The person doing the action is unknown.);
- the writer wants to hide the agent’s identity
Many will say that the passive voice is not permitted in good writing. This is untrue. Good writers know how to delicately blend the passive writing voice with active sentences. Like all writing techniques, passive voice should be used with intention and purpose.
Passive Voice vs. Active Voice Exercises
Are these sentences written in the active or passive writing voice?
- This episode was brought to you by Coca-Cola.
- Children danced in the halls to celebrate the last day of school.
- The china was made in Japan.
- We bought a new entertainment unit.
- The fossil has been discovered.
See Answers Below.
Summary: What is a Passive Voice?
Define passive voice: The definition of passive voice is when the recipient of the verb’s action becomes the subject of a sentence.
The passive voice is not common in writing. However, it is a stylistic choice that writers will occasionally use for effect.
The passive writing voice occurs when what would be the object of a sentence becomes the subject.
For more information on English voice, see our full article on the active voice.