Monday, June 10, 2019

R&R: Raves and Rants With Multi-Published Author Amanda Cabot

That Pesky Passive Voice

·         Passive voice is weak.
·         Only sloppy writers use passive voice.
·         You should never use passive voice.

I suspect you’ve heard at least one of those declarations, perhaps uttered with such conviction that you were certain you’d be struck by lightning if you dared question the validity of them. I’m here to play devil’s advocate and tell you that all three are wrong. Mind you, I’m not a fan of passive voice, and I try to avoid it, but – and this is a big but – there are times when the passive voice is the best choice.

Let’s start by defining passive voice. After all, it helps to be able to identify this “never to be used” verb construct. My Merriam Webster’s dictionary offers the following definition: “asserting that the grammatical subject of a verb is subjected to or affected by the action represented by that verb.”

While it’s an accurate definition, I was appalled by it, because there have to be easier ways to define passive voice.

·         One is to use an equation:
o   A form of the verb “to be” + a past participle (typically a word ending in “ed”) = passive voice
·         Or you can apply a simple test.
o   Does the subject of the sentence do something; i.e., does the subject act? If so, the sentence uses active voice. “We all enjoyed the event” is active voice.
o   Does the subject of the sentence have something done to it? If so, it’s passive voice. “The event was enjoyed by all” is passive voice.

The second example, by the way, is the reason most people avoid the passive voice. It sounds artificial. Is it weak? Not necessarily, but the phrasing is awkward.

There are, however, times when passive voice is preferable to active.

·         When you want to emphasize the object.
“I was appalled by it.”
Did you notice that I used passive voice when I described my reaction to the official definition?  I could have said, “That definition appalled me,” which would have been active voice, but the sentence wouldn’t have had the same impact. I wanted to make my reaction the most important part of the sentence, and so I used passive voice, putting the word “I” at the beginning of the sentence.

·         When the subject is unknown or unimportant.
“The lawn had been mowed before we arrived home.”
In this case, what’s important is the condition of the lawn, not who did the mowing. Again, passive voice is the right choice.

The bottom line is:
·         Passive voice is not necessarily weak.
·         You’re not necessarily a sloppy writer if you use it.
·         There are times when you should use passive voice.

I won’t end this by saying, “I hope this post was enjoyed by you,” since that would be an example of all that’s wrong about passive voice. Instead, let me say simply, “I hope you enjoyed the post.”

And I hope you’ll return in August, when we’ll revisit commas and some of the more amusing things that happen when they’re omitted or used in the wrong place.


Cover of A Tender Hope

A lifetime of reading and writing, not to mention a host of teachers who believed that good grammar was one of the essentials of life, have given Amanda Cabot such firm opinions about the printed word that I asked her to share some with us in her Raves and Rants posts.  

Although her working career was in Information Technology, Amanda achieved her dream of selling her first novel before her thirtieth birthday and is now the author of more than thirty novels as well as a number of books and articles for Information Technology professionals.  

Her most recent book, A Tender Hope, is the final book of the Cimarron Creek trilogy.

Find all of Amanda's books, newsletter info and social media links here.


  1. Amanda, I get the biggest kick out of your posts! Thanks for the fun as well as the education!


    1. I'm so glad you enjoy them, Nancy. Are there any topics you'd like me to address? I'm always open to suggestions.

  2. Excellent article Amanda! Thank you!

  3. I echo Nancy's sentiments. I really enjoy your posts, Amanda, as constant reminders of the errors of my ways in writing. You can bet that I'll be keeping a keen eye out for that pesky passive voice as I write a chapter today.