Editing Tips: Passive Voice
  • 6-minute read
  • 24th February 2023

Editing Tips: Passive Voice

Many style guides favor the active voice, which is more direct in that the subject of the sentence does something or is something. Some clients go as far as asking us to remove any instances of passive voice entirely, so it’s important to be able to recognise when you are looking at a passive construction and when you’re not.

 

The active voice looks like this: Subject + Verb + Object.

Subject
Shakespeare
Verb
Wrote
Object
Hamlet

It places the emphasis on the subject and its action.

 

The passive voice is formed by:

Some form of the verb to be
a past participle
Hamlet
Form of the verb to be
Was Written
by Shakespeare

It places the emphasis on the person/thing receiving the action – in effect making the object into the subject. 

Why is passive voice used?

There are various reasons we might use passive voice.

 

  • The subject is unknown—Police are widening their search after a man was murdered last night. 
  • The subject is obvious—I was treated for a ruptured appendix.
  • We just want to emphasize the object over the subject—The iPhone was released in 2007.

 (If I’m writing about the phone itself, passive might work. On the other hand, if my focus is the Apple company, active will be preferable—Apple released the iPhone in 2007.)

 

While there are certainly legitimate uses of the passive, we are often asked to minimize its use or remove it altogether, so identifying it is important.

Spotting passive voice

Remember that voice is not connected to tense; the passive can occur in any tense:

The document was delivered on time.
The document will be delivered on time.
The document had been delivered on time.

So, to identify passive voice, you need to look out for the verb to be in any form followed by a past participle. 

However, don’t be fooled! Sometimes things look like passive voice when they aren’t. Take a look at these examples:

The corners of the table were rounded.
The mammoth tusk was frozen in place.
The Chilean miners were trapped for 69 days.

These sentences are not passive voice. But why not? They all have a form of the verb to be, and they all have what appears to be a past participle. 

Look more closely, however, and you’ll see that these are not past participles; they’re predicate adjectives (adjectives that modify or describe the subject of a sentence or clause and are linked to the subject by a linking verb – in the cases above, they are linked by the verb to be). Sometimes, predicate adjectives are in the same form as past participles, so be careful not to confuse them!

Here are a few extra things to help you identify passive voice:

1. Look for an action in the sentence – is something being done to someone/something?

The speech was given to rapturous applause.

(We have an action – giving a speech.)

John was satisfied in his new job.

(This is a state, not an action – we’ve got a predicate adjective here, not a passive voice sentence.)

2. There may be a ‘by’ phrase indicating who/what took the action.

 

Growth in the industry was limited by a variety of factors.

3. Use zombies to fight passive voice.  A handy tip for testing if a construction is passive is to add ‘by zombies’ at the end of the verb phrase. If the sentence still makes grammatical sense, then it may well be a passive construction (still be aware of predicate adjectives, though!)

The bulk of the budget is spent [by zombies] on energy consumption.

4. Use the Hemingway App

5. Take our ‘Is it passive voice?’ quiz to get a bit more practice.

How to change a sentence from passive to active

1. Identify the subject

Let’s take an example:

An important role is played by automation.
  • Is there an action? Yes—a role is being played.
  • What is playing the role? Automation—so this is the subject.

So, you can simply put the subject at the start:

Automation plays an important role.

But what if the subject (the actor) isn’t explicitly mentioned? 

Specialized analyzers for cannabis testing should be offered as regulations would impose the need for analyzers.

Try to identify the subject from the context. If the previous sentence mentioned ‘manufacturers,’ for example, you could edit to:

Manufacturers should offer specialized analyzers for cannabis testing, as regulations would impose the need for analyzers.

2. Make the abstract noun/phrase the subject

Sometimes, though, it’s impossible to identify the subject, even from context. So, what do you do in these cases?

A simple hack is to make abstract nouns (the market, infrastructure bill, technology) the subject of the sentence.

For example:

Approximately $65 billion is to be allocated in the infrastructure bill to improve the reliability and resiliency of power grids.

Here, it’s impossible to know who precisely is allocating the money. So, you can simply make the abstract noun ‘the infrastructure bill’ the subject:

The infrastructure bill includes $65 billion to improve the reliability and resiliency of power grids.

Or

The infrastructure bill allocates $65 billion to improve the reliability and resiliency of power grids.

3. Choose a stronger verb

You can eliminate passive sentences simply by using a stronger verb or getting rid of the helping verbs is, are, was, were, being.

 

For example:

The deployment of wind and solar is expected to continue to drive sales for MV switchgear equipment.

Here, you could replace ‘is expected to’ with ‘may’ or ‘is likely to’:

The deployment of wind and solar is likely to continue to drive sales for MV switchgear equipment.

This rule applies to the following phrases:

  • is expected/forecasted/projected/anticipated to → is likely to/may
  • is considered to be/is considered → is
For example:
The ability to light a fire is considered a vital bushcraft skill.
The ability to light a fire is a vital bushcraft skill.

You should also eliminate helping verbs:

The company is focused on additional automation.
The company focuses on additional automation.

4. Watch out for ‘to be’

Some verb phrases containing ‘to be’ can be amended to noun phrases for a more active tone:

to be distributed >> for distribution

that need to be transported >> that will travel

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