If you’ve gone through life believing the passive voice should be put in a box and placed in the corner of an uncomfortably moist basement never to see the light of day, I have some shocking news.

The passive voice is not always wrong.

When Passive Voice Works

Scientific writing actually encourages passive voice because avoiding pronouns helps researchers present their findings in an objective, fact-based way. If you’ve ever read psychological studies, you know that a researcher will write a sentence like, “Subjects were found to prefer long narratives as opposed to short narratives” as opposed to a sentence that inserts himself/herself into the study, such as, “I found that subjects preferred long narratives as opposed to short narratives.”

Laboratory Cat

Passive voice can also be useful for dodging responsibility, so politicians really love using it in their speeches. I’m kidding (somewhat), but Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton each said, “Mistakes were made,” a sentence that’s often cited as a classic example of passive voice construction. “Mistakes were made” is pretty vague, and that’s the whole point; it lets people know that some mishandling occurred, but it doesn’t say who mishandled the situation. (Typical politics.)

Richard Nixon

“Come on, guys; the acronym for the committee was CREEP. Can’t we just laugh about it?”

Writers can also use the passive voice when they want to emphasize a word or an idea within a sentence. I watched Law and Order the other night, and I noticed that the characters sometimes speak in passive voice. When speaking of a murderer’s bail hearing, one of the detectives said, “He was found guilty on all three counts.” This sentence places the emphasis on the murderer and the fact that he was found guilty on all counts. If the writers for Law and Order changed this passive sentence to an active sentence, that sentence could read, “The judge found him guilty on all three counts.” In this sentence, the emphasis is on the judge who found the murderer guilty.

Elliot Stabler Remand

No, I definitely did not assault the defendant during questioning.

Passive voice can be used (see what I did there?) to help a reader focus on a certain part of a sentence.

Richard Nixon was hated by many people.

This sentence emphasizes the fact that Richard Nixon was an object of hatred.

Many people hated Richard Nixon.

Here the emphasis is on the people who hated Richard Nixon, not Nixon himself.

Clearly the passive voice is useful, so what’s the problem with it? Passive sentences can sometimes sound strange, ambiguous, and/or wordy. Because the writing I do usually doesn’t relate to science or politics, I avoid the passive voice unless I want to emphasize a word/idea. Unlike politicians, I want the meaning of my sentences to be absolutely clear, and passive voice can get in the way of clarity. I also try not to write wordy sentences (emphasis on try), and passive sentences can be cumbersome and awkward.

What Passive Voice Looks Like

In an active sentence, the subject is the agent, or the person or thing doing the action.

Richard writes the column.

“Richard” is the agent: he’s the person performing the action. He writes.

In a passive sentence, the subject of the sentence does not perform an action but instead is acted upon.

The column is written by Richard.

In this sentence, “the column” is the subject. It’s not performing an action; it’s being acted upon by “Richard.”

Even if a sentence doesn’t have a “by” phrase, it can still be passive. I mentioned above that writers use the passive voice when they want to emphasize something. They may also intentionally leave an agent out of a sentence if the agent is unknown or not important.

The tapes were seized.

In this sentence, the writer may consider the people who seized the tapes unimportant, so he or she chooses not to identify exactly who seized the tapes. Another possibility is the writer doesn’t know who seized the tapes, so he or she can’t identify the agent. Or maybe the writer isn’t at liberty to disclose the agent’s identity.

How to Change Passive to Active

The passive voice gets a bad reputation because writers use it when they don’t really need it, causing their writing to sound lazy, confusing, or flat. Active voice can lend to writing a livelier, more dynamic feel. Here’s how I would go about changing these passive sentences into active sentences:

The season finale was watched by millions of people.

Millions of people watched the season finale.

It is believed by most college students that Facebook is a waste of time.

Most college students believe Facebook is a waste of time.

Because it is Friday, no work will be done by the employees.

Because it is Friday, the employees will do no work.

My attempt to cook a delicious dinner was not appreciated by my family.

My family did not appreciate my attempt to cook a delicious dinner.

It was proven by the cat’s standoffish behavior that cats hate people.

The cat’s standoffish behavior proved that cats hate people.

The evidence will be introduced at trial by the attorney.

The attorney will introduce the evidence at trial.

A potential cure for the illness is being researched by scientists.

Scientists are researching a potential cure for the illness.

By that time, a negotiation will have been reached by diplomats.

By that time, diplomats will have reached a negotiation.

Living, Breathing Writing

I think the important thing to remember with passive voice is that it has a purpose. Sometimes that purpose serves your writing, and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, passive sentences can suck the life out of your writing. And while passive sentences can fall flat, active sentences imbue writing with vigor, robustness, and…