As a writer, you have undoubtedly heard that you shouldn’t use passive voice. The advice is everywhere: teachers, textbooks, and writing websites advise against it. But are there situations when you can use passive sentences?
Use passive sentences when you want to emphasize an action, the situation applies to a group of people, or for stylistic reasons. You don’t need to avoid passive sentences altogether; instead, limit their use to an acceptable percentage of sentences.
As a writer you have probably heard this advice a million times:
Do not use passive voice.
Or this related advice:
Avoid linking verbs and use active verbs instead.
While those two pieces of advice have merit, it is practically impossible to always follow them. This post explores several reasons passive sentences are sometimes acceptable.
Sometimes You Should Use Using Passive Sentences
In some situations, the passive voice better suits the purpose of the sentence.
1–To Emphasize the Action Being Taken, Not Who Took It
Alana offered Jim additional responsibilities.
Jim was offered additional responsibilities.
If the context is to show what Alana did, then the active voice would be appropriate. But if the point is that Jim has finally proven himself, then you can use the passive sentence.
2–Use Passive Sentences to Avoid Repetition
If a person was identified in one sentence, the reader would not need to have that name repeated:
Sylvia Jones, the district manager, will lead a sales meeting tomorrow. Sylvia Jones is considered a dynamic speaker.
Sylvia Jones is the focus of those sentences. Now compare that to this sentence:
Sylvia Jones, the district manager, will lead a sales meeting tomorrow. She is considered a dynamic speaker.
If you feel that other people’s opinions are important, then you could write:
Sylvia Jones, the district manager, will lead a sales meeting tomorrow. Many people consider her a dynamic speaker.
3–Use Passive Sentences When the Focus is a Group of People
When the situation applies to everyone, passive voice is acceptable.
All the company’s products can be bought online.
Compare that to
You can buy all the company’s products online.
Anyone can buy all the company’s products online.
Again, the writer should consider what deserves to be focused on—the company or the consumers.
Time is Money
The average sentence contains 15 to 20 words, and a 1,000-word blog post contains 50 to 60 sentences. If five or six of those sentences use linking verbs or passive voice, then 90% of your sentences are in the active voice. Not bad.
At that point, you should consider if the additional time revising those six sentences is worth your time. Are readers going to notice that several sentences in the blog post are in passive voice? The principle of diminishing returns suggests that at some point few readers will notice the difference. And you could have spent your time on your next piece of writing instead.
The following is an example of a sentence with passive verbs:
While those two pieces of advice have merit, it is practically impossible to always follow them.
I could attempt to rewrite the sentence.
The advice about linking verbs has merit.
It is advice with merit.
It is meritorious advice.
I believe the advice has been found to have merit.
Two minutes later, and I still haven’t found a way to avoid the linking verb.
Meritorious advice most of the time, but not something you can always get right.
That doesn’t sound right either—right or wrong is not the issue.
Another minute of fiddling with the sentence and I wind up with this:
Follow that advice when you can; however, you will not find success 100% of the time.
Good. Finally a sentence that avoids both passive structure and linking verbs. But were those three or four minutes a good use of my time in writing this post?
Bottom Line: the Good News About Passive and Active Voice
Since the advice about voice and verbs is a guideline, not a rule, you can choose to follow it or ignore it. We write to communicate, and your audience will get far more annoyed by unnecessary repetition or accidentally grammatical mistakes.
Which annoyed you more in the previous paragraph–the passive sentence or the “accidentally” mistake?
One more piece of good news: the more you write, the easier it becomes to spot the use of passive voice and correct yourself mid-sentence. So don’t get bogged down in eliminating every linking verb or passive sentence. Write more so that you develop the ability to correct yourself on the spot.
However, if you are intent on rooting out passive voice, check out the Passive Voice Detector. Enter your text, and it will identify passive voice. Writing tools such as Word have an editing function that identifies passive voice. You can find a post about that and a comparison of Word and Grammarly here.
How hard do you work to eliminate passive sentences?