How to Fix Passive Voice

First of all, in spite of the title of this article, passive voice doesn’t qualify as a grammatical error. So, why “fix” it? Over-reliance on the passive voice indicates that the writer doesn’t understand the topic at hand. By using active verbs, you ensure that your writing conveys confidence and authority. Also, writing in the passive voice can be easier to read and understand. 

Let’s take the following sentence as an example:

The house was burglarized. 

Who burglarized the house? After reading that sentence, the reader doesn’t know. The writer may not know either. Let’s change the sentence construction in order to introduce a subject to commit the burglary. 

Somebody burglarized the house. 

Hansel burglarized the house. 

Both of these sentences feature subjects that act on the house (object). In the first sentence, the reader still doesn’t know the answer to the question, “Who burglarized the house?” In the second example, the subject of the sentence provides an answer to that question. Typically, when an English teacher asks a student to “fix passive voice,” they’re suggesting that more active sentences may increase the clarity of the student’s writing. As readers, we usually receive more information from active sentences, compared to passive sentences of the same length. So, by telling you to fix passive voice, a teacher or professor is trying to urge you to be more specific, less vague, and more concise. 

If you go through your paper adding unclear subjects like “somebody,” “something,” “a person,” or “a place,” you may remove the passive voice without addressing the professor’s concerns.

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How to Identify Passive Voice

Passive voice describes circumstances when the object of the action of the verb also serves as the subject of the sentence. Keep an eye out for any variations of the verb “to be” followed by a past participle. Let’s look at some examples of “to be” with the past participle “walked”.

  • is + walked
  • are + walked
  • am + walked
  • was + walked
  • were + walked
  • has been + walked
  • have been + walked
  • had been + walked
  • will be + walked
  • will have been + walked
  • is being + walked

Any of the constructions listed above would indicate a passive voice sentence. 

Fixing Passive Voice

Imagine the sentence, “The dogs have been walked.” To make this sentence active, we need to introduce a grammatical subject that isn’t the object of the action of the verb (the dogs).

Katerina has walked the dogs. 

Katerina has been walking the dogs. 

You can replace the passive verb construction “has been walked” with either the present perfect verb tense, “has walked,” or the present perfect progressive, “has been walking”. Either form of the verb allows for a concise sentence with a clear subject (Katerina). 

Next, let’s upgrade the sentence, “The dogs will have been walked by Thursday.”  

Katerina will have walked the dogs by Thursday. 

No matter which verb tense you use, you can find a corresponding active verb for each passive verb. 

  • is + walked becomes walks
  • are + walked becomes walks
  • am + walked becomes walks
  • was + walked becomes walked
  • were + walked becomes walked
  • has been + walked becomes has walked or has been walking
  • have been + walked becomes has walked or has been walking
  • had been + walked becomes has walked or has been walking
  • will be + walked becomes will walk
  • will have been + walked becomes will have walked
  • is being + walked becomes is walking

Finding the Subject of the Sentence

You may notice that some passive constructions hide behind complicated sentence structures. To correct these instances of passive voice, you’ll need to develop your skill at identifying the subject of a sentence. Once you locate the grammatical subject, you must ask yourself whether the subject performs the action or receives the action.

Let’s look at a few examples:

It is argued that he is a fine leader.

Subject: It

Voice: Passive

These results suggest a relationship between PH level and vulnerability to disease. 

Subject: Results

Voice: Active

She is considered the foremost expert on apostrophes in literature. 

Subject: She

Voice: Passive

The sky is yellow before the storm. 

Subject: Sky

Voice: Active

In the above example, notice that we maintain active voice while using the word “is”. Forms of “to be” do not automatically imply that a sentence is passive. Adding a past participle after “to be” would make the sentence passive. For example, “The sky is seen as yellow,” would imply some unnamed doer who acts upon the sky by seeing it, thereby changing the sentence to passive voice. 

Other Ways to Make Your Writing More Concise

Often, when a teacher or professor flags passive voice, they’re indicating that your writing style needs more precision. Try self-editing with some of these writing tips to improve the strength of your prose:

  • Don’t overuse adverbs, especially the word “very”
  • Try to avoid placing a preposition at the end of a sentence
  • Opt for descriptive verbs (“Cackled” conveys more information than “laughed.”)
  • If you don’t know the actor in the sentence, do some additional research
  • Use passive voice sparingly
    • In instances where no one knows the actor
    • When the actor is irrelevant 
    • To purposely obscure the actor or avoid placing blame
    • In idioms or sayings that apply to everyone, such as “rules are made to be broken”