How to Identify Passive Voice

How to identify passive voice
Before we show how to identify passive voice, let’s dispel a few myths that make yours truly turn into a hairy, clawed monster every time they’re repeated. I’m willing to sacrifice the monster coming out so you can rid yourself of these passive voice falsehoods.

Passive Voice Is Incorrect

This is the worst one, and the thought that many believe this is already turning me into a werewolf. No, no, no, and absolutely no! Using passive voice is not wrong. There are even times when it’s absolutely necessary.

When You See a Form Of “To Be,” It’s Passive Voice

Not necessarily – “to be” is sometimes, but not always, passive voice.

Grammar Checkers Find Passive Voice

No, they can’t. Grammar checkers are dicey. They can help, but they can also be a real pain in parts of the anatomy I will not mention here. The fact is, they’re quite capable of missing passive voice, and they’re quite capable of missing real grammatical errors, or identifying correct sentences as being incorrect. There are no short cuts. It’s important to actually learn your grammar.

What’s Passive Voice?

Passive reverses the position of the subject (the doer) and the object (the thing that is acted on). Confused? An example makes it clearer.

  • “The paper was passed by the professor.” That’s passive voice.
  • “The professor passed the paper.” That’s active voice.

In the second sentence, you have a normal structure of a subject (professor) doing something active (passing) to an object (paper). The first sentence makes the paper into the subject and does not emphasize the verb or who committed the act.

How do we know which is which? In passive voice, the doer comes after the thing that was done. Also, you can look for forms of “to be” followed by a past participle. In our example, “was” is a form of “to be” and the past participle is “passed.”

Forms of “to be” are: was, is, am, are, have been, has, will be, being, and will have been.

Am I contradicting my statement that “to be” (and its forms) does not always indicate passive voice? No. the past participle is the key. Look at this. “I know how it feels to be a werewolf.”

That’s active voice. There is no past participle. The subject, “I,” comes first. “I know how it feels to be confused,” is also active voice because the subject “I” comes before the thing that happened. Further, “confused” is an adjective that describes a feeling or state.

Is There an Easy Way to Identify Passive Voice?

Yes, and it’s really simple. To identify passive voice, look at what happened and look at who was responsible for doing it. If the person or thing responsible for doing the actions is either omitted or occurs in the sentence AFTER the thing that happened, AND if you see a past participle straight after the form of “to be,” it’s passive voice.

  • “Poland was invaded.” Passive voice – the doer is absent.
  • “Poland was invaded by Germany.” That’s passive voice. The doer comes after the thing that was done.
  • “Germany invaded Poland.” That’s active voice. The doer comes first.

Why Do People Believe Passive Voice Is Bad?

Although the passive voice is perfectly correct and sometimes even preferable, it may be a trifle vague – especially when doers are omitted. So looking at our World War 2 example, Poland was invaded. Who did it? The second passive voice example gives all the facts, but the third example is the most lucid and concise. It uses three words whereas the second passive voice version needs five. Active voice sentences are often shorter, clearer and easier to understand.

When Is the Passive Voice the Best Way to Say Things?

Passive voice is preferable when:

  • Nobody knows who was responsible: “A fire was started.”
  • Nobody cares who was responsible: “Shrubs were planted.”
  • You don’t know, you don’t care, but you know it happened, so you’re being deliberately vague: “The law was passed in 1935.”
  • What you’re saying is always true regardless of who or what does it: “Rules were made to be broken.”
  • The thing that was acted on is more important than what caused it to happen: “The road was built in 100 AD.”
  • You are writing in a genre that generally requires the passive voice. This often applies to scientific papers, usually in the “materials and methods” section: “100 plants were subjected to CO2 enrichment.”

When you use the passive voice, be sure that it’s the best way to say what you want to say. Beware of omitting important facts since passive voice allows you to do so without a grammatical error. Also, beware of turning an easy statement into an awkward one by making it longer and more complicated than it needs to be.

  • I never understood why teachers were so hell-bent against essays that had the passive voice in them. I understand that passive voice can sometimes be a little long-winded when compared to active voice, but it just seems ridiculous that how anti-passive voice so many teachers seem to be.

    • While it may not be technically wrong, not using the passive voice will make your writing stronger in most cases. It’s easy to use passive voice and a lot of students do it without even thinking about it. If your goal is to write the best that you can, writing in active voice is usually the best choice.

  • My client just told me I can’t write “this problem can cause x symptoms,” because that’s passive voice. So, she requires me to say, “this problem causes x symptoms.” I feel this is wrong. After all, it doesn’t always cause those symptoms. Is that really passive voice, or is it just being accurate?

      • Uses of “can” versus “may”. Although the two are “possibilities” by definition, the latter is the best choice. Using “may” is direct and formal in terms of effective writing.

  • Please PLEASE can you make it clear that the use of the word ‘was’ does NOT always—or even usually—indicate passive voice? This is SUCH a common misconception.

    I have had people authoritatively state that “I was walking down the street” is passive voice. Why? Because …’was.’

    Ditto “Jennifer’s birthday was fast approaching, so I needed to find her a present.”

    I think this misconception is far more widespread AND damaging than the mistaken idea that passive voice is bad. Whether it’s bad or not, in specific instances, can’t be determined unless the writer actually recognises it. (Spot the passive voice in that sentence. No ‘was’ to be seen there.)

    If people MUST look for a shortcut, I’d say keeping an eye out for ‘was being’ is a better indicator. Again, not foolproof. But better than just ‘was.’

    • But both is passive voice. Not because of the was, but because the was is a helping verb which isn´t nessecary.
      “I was walking down the street” – “I walked down the street”
      “Jennifer’s birthday was fast approaching” – “Jennifer’s birthday approached fast”
      Not passive voice:
      “The tree was green”

      • “I was walking down the street” is not passive but the past continuous tense.
        “I walked down the street” is not passive but simple past tense.


  • Awesome, thank you! After 45 years out of school, writing a ‘correctly styled’ Uni essay has proven a little daunting. This article is a wonderful find.

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