The Hunt for Passive Voice -->

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The Hunt for Passive Voice


By Rachel Grammer, Writing Consultant

The problem of passive voice is a real issue in academic writing. While many well-meaning but misguided educators may have told you that indirectness equals formality, the truth is that the two are not synonymous! In fact, rather than increasing the formality of a work, passive voice is a stylistic choice that often incites confusion in readers.

Passive voice likes to hide in your work, so in order to bring it to light, you need to face your fear of direct language. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you tackle passive voice in your writing:

  • SVO is the way to go! Standard English word order is SVO, the subject-agent, verb, and then the object, in that order. If the object (the word that receives the action) comes before the subject-agent (the word that performs that action), then your sentence may be prone to passive voice.
    • Passive voice: The meal was eaten by James. (Note that the person performing the action is James, the subject-agent. However, look at the order of the words in this sentence. The order here is not SVO, but OVS.)
    • Revised to active voice: James ate the meal.

  • Be polite. Introducing a prop before the main actor in a stage performance would seem rude and strange. The same thing goes for passive voice. Introducing an object (a receiver of the action) before you show the reader which word is acting on the object (the subject-agent) can cause misunderstanding.
    • Passive voice: A study was conducted on the effects of sleep deprivation on driving. (This sentence does not even tell the reader who conducted the study! Therefore, the reader is left without important information.)
    • Revised to active voice: The high school students conducted a study on the effects of sleep deprivation on driving.

  • Watch out for those buzzing to be’s. Passive voice is marked by a “to be” verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, have been, will be, etc.) added onto the beginning of another verb (e.g., was thrown, is given, will be considered). While not all “to be” verbs are indicators of passive voice, they are still a good place to start.
    • Passive voice: Passive voice is considered to be a form of writing that is not used in academic papers. (Take a look at is considered and is not used, the two verb phrases in this sentence. Both of these contain passive voice, and both of them include is, one of the “to be” verbs.)
    • Revised to active voice: Passive voice is a form of writing that students do not use in academic papers.

  • Super secret subject-agents? Passive voice is notorious for eliminating subject-agents and leaving the reader wondering by whom? or by what? If you can add that question to the end of a phrase, your sentence probably has a case of passive voice (e.g., The grass was watered. [by whom?] The research was considered invalid. [by whom?] Many results were skewed. [by what?]).
    • Passive voice: The orange juice was drunk immediately, and the glass was dropped. (Who or what drank the orange juice? Who dropped the glass?)
    • Revised to active voice: The child drank the orange juice and dropped the glass.

Use these tips on your hunt for passive voice, and stop the ambiguity before it has a chance to start!


  1. Thank you Rachel, information you provided above was very helpful.

    -Irina Demidova

  2. be active or passive...thanks for some clarity....we will see if it sticks in the next paper.... Barbaradee

  3. Thank you! The Super secret subject-agent and SVO were helpful. I am sure to remember them!


  4. I totally get the SVO concept, however, then the writing seems all the same. I have faithfully used Grammarly and it helps to fix most of the errors. Once the paper is turned in the instructor manages to point out additional passive voice. I feel very defeated in my writing.

    1. Don't feel defeated! :)

      The important thing to think about here is appropriate variation. Like you mentioned, you don't want each sentence to be a simple sentence in SVO order (e.g., I went to the mall. I bought a cake. I ate the cake.). It would be boring.

      You can create compound or complex sentences with transitions or with introductory clauses to shake things up. You can also occasionally use a sentence in the passive voice (there is nothing technically wrong with it). Just make sure you don't write a whole paragraph in that structure because that would be boring--and confusing--too. See for some examples of these fixes.

      Take some time to play with the sentences, and let us know if other questions come up. Good luck!