Question: What is the passive voice?
Answer: Traditionally, a construction which emphasizes the receiver of an action.
The passive is formed by combining a "be" verb (am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being) with the
past participle (the third principal part of the verb – (present tense, play; past tense, played; past
Active voice with an active verb (past tense played):
The subject will be the "doer" of the action.
Doer: She played the flute for the Marching Mules.
Passive voice with a passive verb (be verb was plus past participle played: The subject will be the
"receiver" of the action.
Receiver: The flute was played by her for the Marching Mules.
Implied or articulated in every sentence written in passive voice is a "by" someone of something--
in this case "by her."
Obviously the sentence about the flute, written in the passive voice, is awkward, and for this
reason, it would probably never actually be written except as an example of an awkward
Recently, the passive voice has come under general attack for being awkward by those who urge
that the writer use "stronger" verbs. One adversary of passive voice is the APA style manual
which is written or researchers. The APA prefers that researchers "write about the people . . . in a
way that acknowledges their participation. . . . The passive voice suggests individuals are acted on
instead of being actors" (p. 49). This is a good reason in the context of why writers are using the
APA style. Similarly, William A. Sabin says, "Use active verb forms to achieve a simpler and
more vigorous style" (p. 224). This is a good reason when you consider Sabin's business context
and his typical writer/reader.
HOWEVER, passive voice is not only appropriate but preferred in the following instances:
1. Where the actor is unknown and his or her identify is not important.
2. Where the actor's identity is being avoided for some reason.
3. When the receiver, rather than the actor, is the important figure.
4. In academic writing, which often underplays the writer herself or himself. (The increasing
acceptance of first person in academic writing has decreased somewhat the need for passive voice
in this classification.)
The sentence above that is printed in italics and underlined (at mid-page) is written in the passive
voice because it is difficult to point out all those who oppose passive voice, and therefore in this
instance, the passive voice is absolutely correct.
The Writing Center
University of Central Missouri