Writing tip: the passive voice of verbs

VERBS have two “voices”: the active voice and the passive voice. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passivefiction-reveals-truths verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence.

Don’t confuse voice with tense. Tense concerns the time of the action; voice pertains to the way a verb functions relative to the subject of the sentence. In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er, and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er nor a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed. Example:

The ball was thrown by Johnny.

The subject of this sentence is the noun ball. Something is being done to the subject of the sentence, so it is written in the passive voice. To change the sentence to the active voice, write:

Johnny threw the ball.

Examples of the active and passive voices:

Jewelry is often stolen by burglars. [passive]

Burglars often steal jewelry. [active]

Passive forms often use the verb was:

Oxygen was discovered in 1774 by Joseph Priestly. [passive]

Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen in 1774. [active]

In the examples above, the subject of the sentence—burglars and Joseph Priestly—are not the doers of the action.


You don’t have to change every passive construction to an active one. For instance, various stock locutions such as The project was abandoned and The Romans were defeated are perfectly acceptable.

Also, the passive voice is useful when the doer of the action is unknown or unimportant:

The lock was broken sometime after four o’clock. [Who broke the lock is unknown]

In 1899, a peace conference was held at The Hague. [This sentence comes from an essay by E.B. White. In this case, the doers of the action—the holders of the conference—are unimportant to White’s point.]

In every other case, do as Stephen King flatly says in his book On Writing: “You should avoid the passive voice” (emphasis his), noting that it is one of his pet peeves. You will find the same advice in The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and in John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction.

Don’t be passive-aggressive. Use the active voice.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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