Passive Voice Definition
Passive voice (PAH-sihv voys) occurs when the subject of a sentence or clause is acted upon by the verb. For example, in the sentence “The cake was eaten by the teacher,” the subject (the cake) receives the action of the verb, “was eaten.” Thus, the sentence is in the passive voice. If it was written in active voice, it would be “The teacher ate the cake.”
There are two types of passive voice: short passive and long passive. In the short passive, the subject or performer of the action is not known. For instance, in the sentence “Stores were robbed last night,” whoever robbed the stores is unknown. In the long passive, the object of the sentence becomes the subject of the sentence. For example, the sentence “The dinner was cooked by Rashid” is constructed so that the object (the dinner) has become the subject.
Passive Voice vs. Active Voice
There are two types of grammatical voices: passive and active. The term voice refers to whether the subject of a clause or sentence is performing or receiving the action.
Unlike the passive voice, where the subject of a sentence or clause is acted upon, active voice happens when the subject of the sentence or clause either is something or does the action of the sentence. For example, the sentence “Chin-Sun wrote her novel” is written in active voice. The subject of the sentence (Chin-Sun) has performed the action of the verb (wrote). The active voice tends to make writing stronger, more direct, and more vivid than work written in the passive voice.
Why Writers Use the Passive Voice
In general, language critics and guides to style, such as William Strunk & E. B. White’s classic tome The Elements of Style, advise against the passive voice since “[t]he active voice is usually more direct and vigorous.”
Although active voice is usually prioritized in writing, there are some situations where the passive voice may be the appropriate choice.
- If the identity of whoever performed the action of the verb is unknown, passive voice can be applied. For example: “The jewelry store was robbed.” In this sentence, the identity of the robber is a mystery.
- If the identity of the performer is not of contextual importance, authors will use passive voice. For example: “A drug to cure cancer has been discovered.” Here, the discovery of this life-saving drug is what matters—not the scientists who made the discovery.
- If the sentence or clause is intended to help the performer of the action (often the speaker themselves) evade responsibility, then passage voice is allowed. For example: “Mistakes were made” is a common phrase used by whoever made the mistakes or by someone speaking on that person’s behalf. This phrasing shifts emphasis away from the mistake maker and implies the mistakes occurred naturally rather than being a result of someone’s choices.
In addition to these situations, the passive voice can also be used in conjunction with a mention of the performer of the action, generally with a by-phrase. For example, “The murderer was betrayed by his own wife” utilizes passive voice along with a by-phrase (“by his own wife”). This type of phrasing prioritizes the identity of the performer of the action to heighten suspense and surprise.
Examples of Passive Voice in Literature
1. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
In Chapter 6 of her novel, Austen uses the passive voice to poke fun at the character of Mr. Middleton:
[He] pressed them so cordially to dine at Barton Park every day till they were better settled at home that, though his entreaties were carried to a point of perseverance beyond civility, they could not give offense. [bolded for emphasis]
Austen could have written this sentence in the active voice by saying “Although Mr. Middleton carried his entreaties to a point of perseverance beyond civilities, they could not give offense.” However, that wouldn’t have fully conveyed her meaning. Austen chose to use the passive voice to indicate that while Mr. Middleton did push his entreaties too far, because he meant well, everyone forgave him for his pushiness. Using the passive voice allows Austen to gently poke fun at his character in a way that lets readers in on the joke.
2. Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Adams begins the sequel to his beloved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by saying:
The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move. [bold for emphasis]
Adams uses passive voice in the indicated sentences. The creator of the universe is not identified nor given an active role, nor does Adams directly say “People regard this as a bad move.” The passive voice here accentuates the book’s humorous tone.
3. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens’s famous novel about the French Revolution begins:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of believe, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Dickens’s use of passive voice in the opening paragraph establishes the helplessness of his characters against the power of the historical forces at play in the ensuing narrative.
4. William Shakespeare, Richard III
In the first two lines of Shakespeare’s historical play, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, declaims:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
While it’s possible Shakespeare wrote this in passive voice for stylistic reasons, such as preserving rhyme and meter, it’s more likely that he chose this construction because the speaker, Richard, is subtly sneering at his brother Edward, the son/sun of York. Richard spends the rest of the play disrupting his brother’s power. His use of passive voice to describe his brother in this opening soliloquy helps establish him as more active than Edward.
Further Resources on Passive Voice
Journalist Constance Hale wrote a great article about “the pleasures and perils of the passive voice” for The New York Times’s “Opinionater” column.
Poet Laura Da’ uses the passive voice in a surprising and clever way in her poem “Passive Voice.”
- Active Voice