CompFAQ/Passive Voice

From Gerald R. Lucas
📝 English Composition Writing FAQ 💬

In a passive sentence, the subject does not perform an action, like in an active sentence. In the active voice, the subject does something:

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:

The novel was written by the professor.

Recognize a passive construction by some form of the “be” (was) verb that proceeds a past participle (written), followed by a prepositional phrase (by the professor). Notice that the passive sentence is wordier than the active sentence because its contains unnecessary words. Strong academic writing should avoid the passive voice whenever possible; remember to look for a form of the “be” verb (was, is, were, are, etc.)—that is a dead give away. Ask who or what is acting in the sentence and then fix the sentence accordingly, using the real subject and verb.

The passive voice is often necessary. Like in the last sentence, when the subject is implied or unknown, then the passive voice is acceptable. Never use too many passive constructions in a row.

Passive:

The ball was thrown by Tara.
Almost always, the ability to read and write is needed.
Studies are showing that less professionals decide to reproduce.

Active:

Tara threw the ball.
Almost always, people need the ability to read and write.
Studies show that less professionals decide to reproduce.

Progressive Tense

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

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.

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.

Written: 2002; Revised: 07-12-2021 Version: Beta 0.1