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, “Whoburglarizedthe 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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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 haswalked or has been walking
have been + walked becomes haswalked or has been walking
had been + walked becomes haswalked 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.
These results suggest a relationship between PH level and vulnerability to disease.
She is considered the foremost expert on apostrophes in literature.
The sky is yellow before the storm.
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”
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.