Pass on the Passive

© 2009 Tracy Crump

Which of the following sentences arouses more righteous anger?

  • The World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001.
  • The World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists in 2001.
  • Terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001.

Though all three sentences are grammatically correct, the last uses active voice or construction which conveys more power, emphasizes the actor, and is clearer and more direct. The first two use passive voice which generally expresses an idea in a weaker, less straightforward manner.

To understand passive versus active voice, simply remember: In active voice, the subject performs the action; in passive voice, the subject receives the action. Passive voice always combines a form of to be with a past participle. Sometimes the direct object acts upon the subject (as in the second example), and sometimes the actor vanishes from the sentence altogether (as in the first example). Your sentences will carry more clout and communicate better if you use the active voice.

Passive voice is still appropriate in certain situations:

  • To emphasize the receiver of the action (Jesus was raised from the dead.)
  • To minimize the importance of the actor, when you don’t know who the actor is, or when it doesn’t matter (The dam was opened to release flood waters.)
  • To place the actor at the end of the sentence for emphasis or surprise (The family was saved from the burning building by a ten-year-old child.)
  • To make the sentence a command (Trucks are not allowed on this road.)
  • To emphasize the process or experiment in scientific writing (The solution was kept at a steady temperature.)

NOTE: Writers sometimes refer to linking verbs, such as to be, as passive. As Cec Murphey, author of 90 Minutes in Heaven, says, “There is no such thing as a passive verb.” Though to be verbs weaken our writing, they do not by themselves constitute the use of passive voice. Also don’t confuse the use of progressive tense—a to be verb combined with an -ing verb (i.e. I was walking down the street)—with passive voice. Remember that the subject must receive the action of the verb to constitute the use of passive voice.

Keep your writing strong, clear, and active. Pass on the passive!

Resources: The Bedford Handbook, 6th ed. by Diana Hacker, Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner, and The Writers View 2 posts by Cecil Murphy (May 21, 2008)

Tracy Crump has published more than 100 articles, devotionals, and short stories in publications such as Focus on the Family, Today’s Christian, Journey, Pray!, ParentLife, and Thirteen of her stories have appeared in anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul and Cup of Comfort. Crump serves as conference faculty for American Christian Writers, Kentucky Christian Writers, and Southeast Christian Writers and moderates an online critique group. She is a 2008 C.L.A.S.S. graduate and was named 2009 Writer of the Year at the Memphis ACW Conference.


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