Avoiding Passive Voice

Avoiding Passive Voice

Part of being clear means to write sentences that follow the same pattern as when we speak. That way, readers do not get pulled away from the message because the syntax (the order of language) is not what they are used to. That usually is caused by passive voice. 

There are three main causes for passive voice:

    • Not writing in a natural syntax.
    • Trying to vary sentence length.
    • Not putting in an act-or.

Active Voice

Action in English sentences usually goes left to right – the same direction in which we read.  For example:

                                                                                                 Action goes

               Judy shot an arrow into the woods.                                    Left to right

               Susan and Jeremy like playing with their dogs.                 Left to right

               (You) Put the leftovers in the refrigerator.                         Left to right

Passive Voice

Sentences whose action flows from right to left – the opposite of the way we usually speak – have a problem we call passive voice.

                                                                                                 Action goes

               An arrow was shot by Judy.                                               Right to left

               The trophy was won by Cressita                                       Right to left

Passive Voice and No Act-or

The usual time that passive voice occurs is when there is no one stated doing the action.

                                                                                                 Action goes

               The leftovers were put in the refrigerator (by someone)   Right to left

               Next, the statue was stood up (by someone)                      Right to left

Okay Passive Voice

Not all passive voice is bad. In some cases, it is not necessary to have an act-or. For example:

               The company was started in 1874.

Individual or Small Group Activity

Determine which way the action flows: left to right, or right to left.


Action goes

1. Bob threw the ball.


2. The ball was thrown by Bob


3. The ball was thrown.


4. Preheat the oven to 375°.


5. The oven is then preheated to 375°.


Fixing Passive Voice

To fix passive voice problems –

    • Write in a natural way.
    • Don’t worry about making some sentences long and some short.
    • Usually try to have someone doing the action of the sentence.

Write in a Natural Way

Writing and speaking should sound the same in terms of syntax.  For instance, most people do not say, Next, the cookies are then placed in the oven. They say, Next, place the cookies in the oven. We should write the same way.

Don’t Worry About Sentence Length

Students sometime try to vary their sentence length. In fact, some teachers or textbooks stress that. However, if you concentrate on what you have to say, then sentences will be of varying lengths anyway.

Usually Have Someone Doing the Action

Usually place the person or thing doing the action at the beginning of a sentence. 

Passive: The wine was placed on the table by the wine steward.

Active: The wine steward placed the wine on the table.

When giving directions, usually drop you:

Ineffective: You next nail the boards together.

Effective: Next, nail the boards together.

There is nothing wrong with inserting I or we into text, even on scientific papers:

Passive: Next, the students were asked to write essays about unique animals.

Active: Next, I asked the students to write essays about unique animals.

Active: Next, we asked the students to write essays about unique animals.

Here, we means I.  It is called the royal we, because it refers to ourselves.

Individual or Small Group Activity

Change passive voice to active voice in the following if passive voice exists. Do not change the sentences’ meanings.  

1. The letter was signed by Jennifer, the teacher’s aide, in the teacher’s absence.

2. Over 125,000 units were delivered last year in China by our company.

3. Each loaf of bread is weighed by the baker’s assistant.

4. Please arrange a meeting for Thursday at 9 a.m.

5. The merger was approved by the stockholders

6. Two coffee breaks per four-hour period are allowed the employees by the company.

7. In tomorrow’s newspaper your article will be published by us.

8. The CEO was informed by the vice president that the products did not arrive.

9. I should be ready by nine o’clock.

10. The free books will be shipped by truck once the school is formally opened by the school board.

11. Next, the sugar is sprinkled over the newly baked cookies.

12. Please buy ten dozen cupcakes for the festival.

Individual or Small Group Activity

Complete the exercise:  Nevada

Optional Activity