What is the “passive voice”?

From LitWiki

Passive voice is when the subject does not perform an action. It is often confused with the active voice, where the subject actually does something.

(Example Active): The professor wrote a novel.

The subject (professor) performs an action (wrote) which produces the object (novel). In the passive voice, the order of the sentence is reversed so that the sentence merely describes.

(Example Passive): The novel was written by the professor.

Recognizing the Passive Voice

Recognize a passive construction by some form of the “be”(be, am, is, are, was, were, being,been) verb that proceeds a past participle (written), followed by a prepositional phrase (by the professor).

Avoiding the Passive Voice

  • A problem with forms of be is they, as Diana Hacker states in her book A Writer's Reference, "lack vigor because they convey no action" (Hacker 128).
  • Another problem with passive voice is it is often wordy and less concise than active voice.
  • Wordiness, can cause a reader to become confused and/or lose interest in the material (OWL).

Using the Passive Voice

  • Passive voice can be used in technical or scientific writing.
  • Passive voice can be used when what is doing the action is unknown or already well defined.
  • Passive voice can be used when what is recieveing the action (or the product of the action) is more important than what is doing the action.

(Example Active): Scientists discovered a cure for cancer.

(Example Passive): The cure for cancer was discovered by scientists.

In these two examples, it is the product of the action that is needing to be emphasized, which makes passive voice a better choice for the sentence.

  • Constantly using active voice can cause a paper to sound choppy. Passive voice can be used as a transition between active voice sentences to make the sentence flow better (Active).

(Note: Be selective about when and how passive voice is used)

Progressive Tense

Progressive tense is another type of passive construction. It occurs when you use a be verb with an the -ing form of the verb to show that action continues and is not fixed to a certain point in time.


  • She is talking with Henry.
  • They were eating pizza.
  • She has been reading the latest Harry Potter novel.

The progressive tense is often used without thinking, but should only be used sparingly. More often than not the real verb should be used, eliminating the need for the be verb (passive) at all:


  • She talks with Henry daily.
  • They ate pizza last night.
  • She reads the latest Harry Potter novel every night before bed.

Notice that when you eliminate the progressive tense, you must supply a specific time for the sentence to make sense.

(Note:Like the passive voice, use the progressive tense sparingly and strategically for specific rhetorical effect. Try to eliminate all unnecessary uses of the be verb.)

Works Cited

  • "Active vs. Passive Sentences." 2002. Academic center and the University of Houston Victoria. 22 Feb 2005 <Active vs.Passive Sentences>.
  • Hacker, Diana. A Writer's Reference. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin's, 2003.
  • OWL.2000. Purdue University. 22 FEB 2005 <OWL>.

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