When to Use the Passive Voice


In English grammar, we use two types of voices in sentences – active voice and passive voice. The choice between them depends on where the subject is placed in the sentence in relation to the verb. Active voice typically places the subject before the verb, greating a sentence where "The cat chases the mouse." However, when we want to emphasize the action more than the subject, or if the subject is unknown, we employ the passive voice, where the subject comes after the verb: "The mouse is chased by the cat."

The aim of this tutorial is to provide an in-depth explanation on when and how to use the passive voice constructively in English language. It includes an overview, detailed examples, rules, and tips for using the passive voice.

Understanding Passive Voice

The passive voice is often used in formal writing, such as scientific reports, technical writing, and other professional arenas. Certain considerations must, however, be made when applying it. Let's explore them more closely.

1. When the focus is on the action

If your sentence is more about what happened rather than who did it, it makes more sense to use the passive voice because it allows you to put the action or result first. For example:

  • Active: John painted the wall.
  • Passive: The wall was painted (by John).
  • In the passive sentence, the focus shifts to the wall that was painted, not John, who did the painting.

    2. When the doer is unknown or irrelevant

    At times, we don't know who performed the action or it's not important who did. In such situations, the passive voice is a good choice. For example:

  • Active: Someone stole my bike.
  • Passive: My bike was stolen.
  • Here, we can use the passive voice saying "My bike was stolen" as it's the loss of the bike, not the identity of the thief that matters.

    3. To maintain a formal tone

    Some formal and academic contexts prefer passive voice over active. For instance, in research papers, the passive voice helps maintain a detached, objective tone. Example:

  • Active: I conducted the experiment.
  • Passive: The experiment was conducted.
  • In formal writing, it's more about what was done, rather than who did it, hence the preference for the passive voice.

    Doing it Right: Rules of Passive Voice

    Understanding the rules is the key to correctly using the passive voice. These rules largely deal with verb form changes when switching from active to passive voice. Here are some basic rules:

    Rule 1: Identify the subject, verb, and object

    The first thing you need when constructing a passive sentence is identifying the subject, verb, and object in the active sentence. For example, in "Julia enjoys pizzas", Julia is the subject, enjoys is the verb, and pizzas is the object.

    Rule 2: Rearrange and use an appropriate tense

    Passive voice sentences rearrange the subject, verb and object, putting the object first. The verb also changes to a form of 'be' and the past participle. For example, "Julia enjoys pizzas" becomes "Pizzas are enjoyed by Julia".

    Rule 3: Use 'by' before the subject in a passive sentence

    When constructing a passive sentence, 'by' is used before the subject. For example, "The letter was written by him."

    When to avoid using Passive Voice

    While passive voice has its uses, there are cases where it's not recommended. Specifically, when clarity and concise language are required, it's best to remember the following:

    Avoid passive voice in direct, personal interaction

    In personal conversations or informal writing, active voice is usually clearer and more direct. Passive voice can come off as evasive or overly formal.

    Avoid overuse in academic writing

    While passive voice is often used in academic texts, overusing it can make your work more difficult to read. Be sure to balance it with the active voice for clarity.


    Knowing how to use the passive voice correctly can add variety and sophistication to your writing. It's a tool that, when used appropriately, can shift focus, maintain formality, and even add a level of mystery to your narrative. However, it's crucial to remember that like all tools, it is not always the best one for the job. Mastering the balance between active and passive voice will enhance your writing abilities and broaden your linguistic style.

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