How To Fix Passive Voice Misuse

If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve probably come across the passive voice. Many publishers, literary agents and editors advise writers to avoid writing in this style and to instead opt for the active voice. But this isn’t an easy thing to wrap your head around, so in this guide, we’re going to explore how to fix passive voice misuse. 

Passive voice is something I struggled with a lot when I first began writing fiction. At the peak of my frustrations, after climbing up onto the roof of my house and screaming into the wind ‘what is passive voice?’, I would clamber back down and scour the web, reading every morsel I could find.

It almost seems to be a rite of passage for writers to have to tackle it. And this guide will give you the tools to help you.

Below you can find everything you need to know about passive voice misuse, including definitions and examples of instances when using it isn’t regarded as a heinous act of literarycide.

You can browse through the guide below:

Choose A Chapter

  1. The Active Voice vs Passive Voice Debate
  2. What Is Active Voice?
  3. What Is Passive Voice In Writing?
  4. What’s Wrong With Passive Voice?
  5. When Can You Use Passive Voice In Writing?
  6. How To Fix Passive Voice Misuse
  7. Use A Passive Voice Checker And Converter
  8. Learn More About How To Avoid Passive Voice Misuse

The Active Voice vs Passive Voice Debate

Not long ago, I published the results of a bit of research looking at the writing ‘rules’ loathed most by writers. Topping that list was ‘never use the passive voice.’

Why did it score so high? A couple of comments from participants summarise the feelings nicely:

“Passive voice is definitely the one I struggle with the most, I usually run my articles and books through Hemingway before submitting to try and cut some of it out. It just feels natural to write/talk that way.”

I hate the generic “never use passive voice” advice, it’s such bull. Passive voice has a place, it’s just plain lazy to simply avoid it rather than learn it, it’s a tool like any other.”

What can we take from these comments?

i) it’s not a straightforward ‘rule’ to understand, and;

ii) this lack of understanding can lead to a fear of it.

Below, we’ll take a look at how to fix passive voice misuse, but first, let’s aid our understanding and banish any fear.

What Is Active Voice?

A definition is always a handy place to start.

An active sentence is one in which the subject of that sentence is performing an action (a verb).This action is usually received by an object, which comes after the action in the sentence’s construction.  

Let’s look at an example of active voice:

Layla (subject) nocked (verb/action) the arrow (object).

Dave (subject) stood (verb/action) in dog crap (object).

In each sentence, the subject—a noun—is carrying out an action. Layla nocked, Dave stood. The verb follows immediately after the subject, and the object usually after the verb. Essentially, the subject is carrying out an action within that sentence. A way you can remember this, though it’s not a universal rule, is S.V.O.—Subject-Verb-Object.

What Is Passive Voice In Writing?

A sentence written in the passive voice is usually one in which the action is being done to the subject. The subject performs the action but the latter often comes after the former. As well as this, the object tends to come before the action (verb).

A role reversal of sorts in comparison to the active voice. You could remember this passive voice construction like this, though again it’s not a hard and fast rule: O.V.S—Object-Verb-Subject.

Examples Of Passive Voice Misuse

Let’s take a look at some examples of passive voice misuse to reinforce our understanding. 

So as we know, the subject of the sentence is passive—it’s not doing anything, just receives the action. So for example:

The king’s rallying cry (object) was not responded to by (verb/action) anyone (subject).

The entire city (object) was flattened (verb/action) by the tsunami (subject).

The active voice versions of each of these sentences would be:

Nobody (subject) responded to (verb) the king’s rallying cry (object).

The tsunami (subject) flattened (verb) the entire city (object).

Here’s an excellent infographic produced by Your Dictionary. with a bunch more examples of active vs passive voice sentences.

how to fix passive voice misuse infographic
Learn how to fix passive voice misuse

What’s Wrong With Passive Voice?

The passive voice gets a bad rap. From my experience, it seems ‘active’ prose is preferred by publishers and agents. The question has to be asked: why? I can see two key reasons.

  1. Prose written in the active voice is more immediate and immersive, grabbing the reader and refusing to let go. As writers, we want to grab the reader’s attention, and as readers, we want to be grabbed. Writing in this style is proactive and forcible. The subject of each sentence is carrying out an action.
  2. Prose written in the passive voice can use up a lot more words. While this post is an examination of writing ‘rules’ and why we don’t like them, I have to admit I am a fan of Orwell’s guidelines, particularly number three: if it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out. Let’s take an example from before:

Passive:        There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

Active:           Dead leaves covered the ground.

    Twelve words to just five.

what is passive voice

When Can You Use Passive Voice In Writing?

You may have read advice telling you never to use the passive voice. Here’s a better bit of advice: never listen to a rule that begins with the word ‘never’.

This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely disregard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” William Strunk Jr.

It’s a tool, like any other in the writer’s arsenal, and it has its own purpose. You wouldn’t use a hammer to cut a piece of timber in two.

Passive voice is at times necessary. One such instance is when a particular word is required to be the subject of the sentence. Let’s take an example from Strunk:

            The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed today.

            Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

If you’re writing about the dramatists of the Restoration, then the top sentence would be suitable, meaning the use of passive voice becomes necessary. If the sentence seeks to discuss modern readers, then the latter example works. So in short, the subject of the sentence can dictate which voice to use.

Ask yourself: does this sentence need to be active? For example, some people may construe this sentence as passive: “Gideon is a doctor.” The subject, Gideon, isn’t doing anything in this sentence so there’s no need to use the active voice. Like in this one too: “The sofa was comfy.” Again, the sofa isn’t doing anything. It can be a question of necessity. Does this sentence require the active voice?

When using the passive voice, Strunk recommended avoiding constructing sentences in which one passive phrase relies on another. For example:

            Gold was not allowed to be exported.

In this instance, the passive phrases are ‘was’ and ‘to be’.  The problem with this type of sentence construction, according to Strunk, is the use of subject (gold) to express the entire action, rendering the verb (exported) useless beyond completing the sentence. An alternative construction could be:

            The export of gold was prohibited.

However, if you need avoid or fix passive voice, we’ll look at some tips in the next section.

How To Fix Passive Voice Misuse

Let’s take a look at how to fix passive voice misuse. 

My day-to-day language is full of passive words. It’s reached the extent where I’m pretty much conditioned to use it when I speak. If you listen to others, the same applies. To achieve more natural-sounding dialogue, the occasional passive word may well help.

             “I was going to come over, but I wasn’t sure whether you were home.”

If I’d typed this, I’d edit it. Saying it is another matter. I invest much less effort in speech, as those who’ve struggled to understand my mumbling will attest to.

If you feel like you use a lot of passive voice and want to use more active, there are a few things you can do.

A good starting point is to look out for the following words, though I must warn you that sentences containing these words may indicate passive voice; it is not conclusive. Other factors must be considered, for example, the subject of the sentence, as outlined above.

  • Been
  • Am
  • Be
  • Are
  • Was
  • To be
  • Were
  • Is
  • Are
  • Being

So if you’ve ever wondered what words can help make a sentence passive, there’s your answer.

Fixing Passive Voice By Re-Structuring Sentences

Keeping the basic formula for active sentences in mind, you could try restructuring your sentences but remember this is just the typical structure. Some active sentences may break this rule. Ultimately, it’s just a matter of playing around with the word order to see what works best.

Another thing to try is to find a better form of the verb, one that says everything you need to in just one word. They’re out there, somewhere, though sometimes it feels like the hunt for Atlantis. It’s such a good example, here it is a third time:

Passive:          There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

Active:             Dead leaves covered the ground.

Fixing Passive Voice By Introducing or Moving a Subject

An effective move is to insert a subject if a sentence is lacking one or to move a subject to the beginning of a sentence. For example:

Passive:           The duet was sung by Mary and Joe.

Active:              Mary and Joe sang the duet.

Passive:              The arrows were loosed.

Active:                The archers loosed their arrows.

Use A Passive Voice Checker And Converter

If you’re still having difficulty—and trust me, I’ve been there—a good way to learn is by using a free passive voice checker tool online that will point out each passive sentence in your writing and suggest fixes.

Luckily, there are lots of great grammar checkers on the web, including one I built myself. What sets my passive voice checker tool apart from the others on the internet is that it both detects and highlights the problem sentences and offers to convert them into active sentences.

Click here to use my passive voice checker tool

Other tools, like Grammarly, simply highlight the issue without offering much guidance. Its passive voice checker is only available to premium users too, whereas mine is free to all. 

Another passive voice checker tool Hemingway also detects and highlights passive voice. Seeing where you’ve gone wrong can help you identify what to look out for, so you can then focus your efforts on fixing it by moving the subject position and the like.

Learn More About How To Avoid Passive Voice Misuse

Thanks for reading this guide. Hopefully, if someone now asks you, ‘what is passive voice?’, you can tell them. Not only that, you can stun their minds with your grasp of active voice, your depth of passive voice examples, and your tricksy ways to fix issues when you need to.

If you’re after more resources, I have some other writing guides on prose that you may find useful…

Thanks for reading this guide on how to fix passive voice misuse.

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