Perhaps the title is a bit gung-ho (passive voice can be useful, as I’ll talk about more later), but use of the passive voice changes the feel of a sentence. It clouds true meanings and dulls action. Though you may choose to use passive voice to great effect, simply knowing how to pick it out of your linguistic soup will help you improve your writing.
What Is Passive Voice?
Passive voice is where the subject and object are inverted from the normal English word order so as to create an interesting, dulling effect. It’s grammatically acceptable, and I almost guarantee you’ve used it before. Let’s look at an example:
Active: George smoked the pot.
Passive: The pot was smoked by George.
The two sentences essentially mean the same thing, but the second George is less likely to face charges. Why? The first George definitely committed the act. In the second example, the word order is inverted, and native speakers feel like the act happened to George. Actors and actions are dulled by passive voice, whereas objects are accentuated.
Check for “To Be” Words
Passive voice needs helping verbs in order to exist. By checking for this verbiage, you can spot passive voice more easily.
What do I mean by ‘to be’ words or ‘helping verbs?’ Well, they’re the words you use to go along with another verb or, in this article, make passive sentences. You can sing them all to the tune “Jingle Bells:”
Am Is Are
Was Were Be
Being Been Has Had
Have Can Could Should
Would Might May Must
Will Shall Do Does Did
Using that info, which of the following is a passive sentence?
I walked down to Grandma’s house and shot a couple squirrels.
Billy Jo tended the garden with a bear by his side.
The turkeys were dressed by my mother.
Mr. McCalister owns the Tallahachee bridge.
Spoiler: it was number 3! Number 3 takes the object, the turkeys, and makes them the subject. The action of ‘my mother’ is dulled, indicating the importance is on the dressed turkeys.
This doesn’t mean all sentences with helping verbs are passive, so you can’t just rearrange everything to stop including helping verbs. Here’s some other uses that you’ll have to pick through:
Future Tense: Suzy will eliminate all survivors.
Continuous Tenses: Mr. Buchard was bicycling.
Perfect Tenses: Jeff will have escaped from prison by 5.
Ownership: The ants have a picnic basket.
Being: I am a douchebag.
Wow – with all those options (plus a few more), it’s not entirely straightforward to pick out the offensive instances of passive voice. Here’s a set of more difficult sentences to check your skills:
Due to his sharing of military secrets, Renault was a traitor to his country.
“What have you done!?”
She sits alone, waiting for his question.
His lips are dry, her heart’s gently pounding.
She was defeated at checkers.
Alex enjoys watching Le Tour de France despite all the doping controversies.
You guys should love my dog.
The winner? Number 5! Though the subject, whoever defeated ‘her’ at checkers, was never mentioned, the subject-object sentence order was still inverted. Numbers 1, 4 and 7 use the ‘helping verb’ as the sentence’s main verb, whereas the helping verb is used for tense in number 2.
When Is Passive Voice Ok?
Passive voice isn’t just evil, and you’re ultimately the one who decides what happens to any sentence. Plenty of reasons abound to use passive voice.
When the Actor is Unknown – Sometimes, things happen for unknown reasons. Maybe “The solution to the problem was left on the board” sound better than “Someone solved the problem.” It can add an air of mystery that “someone” or “something” might not be able to provide.
When the Object Is More Important – There are instances where you don’t want the actor to be more important. Sometimes, the fact that a person was bitten is more important than the fact that a dog bit someone.
When You Want to Reduce Importance of the Actor – This is usually the reason you want to avoid passive voice, but sometimes you just got to mislead a reader. Reducing the subject’s importance also makes passive voice useful for victim blaming. Victim blaming is a terrible, terrible thing, but you can make it useful in writing. If your villain is nasty and psychological, using the passive voice can gaslight a victim and shove blame away from the perp. I DO NOT CONDONE MAKING REAL LIFE VICTIMS FEEL LIKE GARBAGE.