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Is Passive Voice Always Wrong?

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Is using the passive voice wrong?

It’s a valid question considering how absolutely indoctrinated we’ve become on the subject. I don’t know what your story is that led you to click on this blog post. But here’s part of mine…

Back in college, I had to take English 101. It was a mandatory class for English majors taught by a very intelligent professor who may or may not have had a slight sadistic side.

In her defense, what English professor doesn’t?

The first graded assignment she gave us was to write an essay on our choice of six select poems. Which we all did… only to find out we weren’t supposed to turn them in as planned.

Nope. She wanted us to go through the papers one more time and get rid of all but three “to be” verbs per page.

And she wanted us to do it by the next class.

Why did she want us to revise our writing that way? Because, in her opinion – not to mention many, many other academics at all levels – that would make us better writers.

The message we got from her was loud and clear: The passive voice was wrong. It was unprofessional. And it was to be avoided at almost all costs.

So that was her rationale for why she told us to so severely cut back on our passive voice usage. As for why she couldn’t have told us that requirement right from the get-go?

Well, she was an English professor. Enough said.

I will give her this though… Her tactic worked. Because let me tell you, I was paranoid about using the passive voice for years after, certain it was wrong.

Now almost two decades removed from her, that class, and the academic scene in general, I’ve gained a different perspective. And that is that it really and truly just depends.

Before we get into that though, let’s define the passive voice. Because, contrary to what my old professor let us believe, it’s not just any old case of using a “to be” verb.

It’s when you include some form of a “to be” verb with a past participle. For example:

  • The city has been utterly demolished by the latest attack.

  • After Angela had made that comment, Brian found himself rethinking his attraction to her.

  • Let me tell you: Bongo the puppy was well-loved by that sweet little girl.

And here are some examples of sentences with “to be” verbs that don’t use the passive voice:

  • I was walking down the road when it hit me.

  • He isn’t who he says he is.

  • There were no options left.

Hopefully that helps wash away any guilt or concerns you feel whenever you write some form of “is” or “has.”

Yet even if you are using the passive voice, it honestly isn’t always wrong. It’s true that sometimes, you just don’t need it. And it may very well bog your sentence down with unnecessary words.

You could even argue that’s true in most cases. But I’d also argue that most people wouldn’t utilize the passive voice in most cases.

For instance, with our examples above, an educated adult would likely write, “After Angela made that comment, Brian found himself rethinking his attraction to her.” “Had made” doesn’t sound as right or necessary in most contexts, adding no real value.

Here are some even more noticeable examples of such:

  • The rug is chewed by the ferret.

  • The lasagna wasn’t appreciated by their guests.

  • The gesture was made by George.

Please tell me: Who writes that way without good cause?

Yet consider our other two passive voice-involving sentences:

  • The city has been utterly demolished by the latest attack.

  • Let me tell you: Bongo the puppy was well-loved by that sweet little girl.

It’s true that the first one could be written out as, “The city was utterly demolished by the latest attack.” But “has been” can add additional weight depending on the sentences that come before and after it.

Likewise, “That sweet little girl loved Bongo the puppy.” doesn’t push the same emotional buttons.

Truly then, it all depends on context and intent. So next time you’re wondering about whether to use the passive voice or not, how about you forget the question altogether.

Instead, ask whether what you’re writing reads naturally and intentionally. That – not some pseudo-sadist back in college – should determine the answer.

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