Passive Voice Usage: Writing Tips

When writing, a balance must be struck contextually. See the best guide & tutorial with tips on the correct usage of writing in passive voice

Passive Voice Usage: Writing Tips

Writers often malign the passive voice as a bad writing habit. Or, to put it in the active voice, bloggers across the English-speaking world malign the passive voice like a bad writing habit. When writing in a passive voice, a balance must be achieved contextually. See in this tutorial a guide with tips on the correct usage of writing in the passive voice.

Passive Voice Writing Tips

The passive voice is a grammatical construction. The easiest way to explain passive is to contrast it with active. Active voice is a standard English sentence structure. Moreover, the simplest sentences are those in which an actor (subject) does something (verb) to a person, animal, or thing (receiver).

Semantic functionactordirect verb receiver

In this voice, the actor and receiver are switched around. The recipient becomes the grammar subject. Note that the meaning of the sentence is still exactly the same. The only difference is word order.

WordYouwas huggedby father
Semantic functionreceiverdirect verbactor

In some passive sentences, you can omit the actor. For example, “I was hugged” is a perfectly reasonable passive sentence, even though it is less informative with passive voice writing.

When Not Use It

Let’s get down to business: Most of the time, using the passive voice makes the sentence more distant and your message less clear. So there are two main reasons for this.

First of all, the construction is wordy. Passive alternatives to active sentences are just longer. For example, consider these two sentences: “The passive voice almost always makes your message unclear”, and ”When you use the passive voice, your message almost always becomes less clear”.

You use the passive voice to convey the same information but add three words. It can add up if you overuse passive voice in your text.

Structure Writing in Passive Voice

In addition, the passive voice uses a sentence structure that requires more cognitive effort. Your reader will spend precious working memory trying to understand this sentence. Eventually, this reduces the likelihood of you getting your message across.

As I said before, the structure of basic active sentences in English is fairly consistent and logical. Eventually, the passive voice turns this all the way around. You only find out who or what is responsible for it at the end. This sequence is different from the way we usually understand events.

Also, we wanted the actor to be in the subject position, so we were a little disoriented. This means it takes longer to build a picture of what’s going on. So again, these moments can quickly add up if you overuse the passive voice.

In my case, there was no added benefit to using the passive voice: the active sentence conveyed the same message. When using the passive voice, always consider whether there is a better active alternative.

Other Cases

In addition, passive voice writing can be the only logical way to word a sentence. Most of the time, this happens when the actors are unknown or unrelated. Let’s look at the example I used in the first paragraph of this post. In passive voice writing, the actor and receiver are reversed.

There is no identifiable actor here, nor is he or she relevant. After all, we’re talking about general moves here, not specific moves. None of the alternative active sentences are as clear and concise as the passive sentences I wrote, so this is the best option.

Alternatively, you can use passive sentences to focus on the recipient. This works when the subject is closer to the subject than the actor: JF Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas in 1963.

This means we’re not here to tell you to avoid the voice like the plague. If it beats active alternatives, be sure to use it. Style rules are rarely set in stone, so don’t make the mistake of sticking to rules of thumb. Do what feels right to make your words flow nicely. Usually, a maximum of 10% is sufficient. So, if you follow our advice, you should be able to get lower numbers.

Final Understanding Passive Voice Writing

Try turning each passive sentence you find into an active one. Start your new sentence with the actor. Moreover, sometimes you may find that you must do some extra research or consider who the actor should be! Furthermore, you will likely find that your new sentence is stronger, shorter, and more precise.

We hope this tutorial with a guide on the correct usage of writing in the passive voice has helped you. So please leave your thoughts in the comments box below!