One of the most common writing advice you can find on the web is “never use passive voice.” There are so many professionals and even software tools that identify the passive voice as a mistake that it is hard to resist this crowd wisdom.
However, in reality, the passive voice is not a mistake at all, and sometimes you even should use it. Today we’ll talk about when it is OK to use passive voice.
Intro: subjects and objects
All this “active vs. passive” voice puzzle has its roots going into the difference between objects and subjects. Even some natives do not get it in full.
The basics are as follows, a subject is a person or something that is acting, and an object is a person or something that is affected by this action.
John baked cookies.
Here we have John as a subject of the sentence because he performs an action, and the word “cookies” is an object, as they receive the action. When we have a so-called S-V-O structure, where S stands for an object, V is for a verb, and O denotes objects, this is the active voice.
When this structure is re-ordered, and the subject is acted on by the verb, we have a passive voice.
The burglar was chased by the police.
Here we have “burglar”, which serves as an object, the verb plus preposition “by,” and only then the subject (“police”).
Remember, the preposition “by” is a strong sign of a passive voice.
Is passive voice a grammar mistake?
No, it is not. There is nothing technically “wrong” in using a passive voice; it is a matter of style. Many English style guides require avoiding it to make sentences more clear.
However, you should not completely avoid the passive voice, as sometimes it may be more convenient or even necessary to use.
Here is when you can use the passive voice and still embrace the excellent style.
When it is OK to use passive voice
There are several use cases when passive voice is better or an only option at all. Let’s go through them.
1. We do not know who’s performing an action
In cases where an actor is unknown, or by some reason can’t be easily named, it is safe to go with a passive voice:
The wheel was invented around 3500 B.C. (We do not know who exactly did this.)
2. The actor is not that important as the action
This is a typical case in research papers, where you focus on the action itself, as it is the most important part of the work.
The mix was heated to 200°F for 20 minutes to trigger the reaction.
We could write something like “We heated the solution to 200°F for 20 minutes to trigger the reaction,” but there would be no actual point. The sentence would not become shorter or more comfortable to read. Also, the readers of the research paper assume that authors perform all actions by default, so there is no need to highlight this fact. Anyway, the only thing important here is action.
3. The object is the main topic of a sentence
The most critical information is often located either in the beginning or the end of a sentence. You can use passive voice to highlight such essential things.
Printing press, one of the most important inventions in human history, was created by Johannes Gutenberg.
The object (“printing press”) is the main topic of our sentence, so it is a good decision to use a passive voice.
Passive voice is not a grammar mistake; it is just a language tool, that you should know when to use. If the main goal is to describe something directly, and you do not want to express any hidden ideas, use active voice and the standard S-V-O structure.
However, if you are writing more layered content like a research paper or even a comedy script, then the passive voice will help in conveying all ideas you wanted and pointing focus to the right things.