Using Passive Verbs

As a student, teachers may have encouraged you never to use passive verbs. One reason to avoid passive verbs is that they tend to hide the main characters of your story. For example, if you write the sentence “Gaul was conquered” or “The idea was approved,” most readers will ask: by whom?

However, passive verbs aren’t always bad. If a passive verb lets you foreground the sentence’s most important character, it can actually be clearer than an active verb. You might decide to use passive verbs in two situations:

  • When you want to keep the focus of your story on a single main character, passive voice can let you keep that character in the topic position of your sentences.

    Until the Gallic Wars of 58-51 BC, Gaul could not produce enough food to support its citizens, primarily because irrigation systems were unknown in the region. Once Gaul was subdued by Caesar, however, it was taught by its conquerors the Roman techniques for crop irrigation.

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    These sentences tell a story about one main character: Gaul. This writer puts it in the topic position of all of her sentences because she wants to keep the reader focused on it, and not any of the other characters.

  • When the agent, or the character performing the action, is unimportant to the story you want to tell, passive voice can let you remove that character from the topic position.

    Prior to the optimization runs, the steam efficiency of the double-effect evaporator’s second effect was measured to be 61-63%.

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    Though the writer’s team of engineers measured the steam economy, the writer doesn’t mention them because empirical results are only valid when they can be replicated by different researchers.

The Bottom Line: Though we discuss this topic in greater length in our sidebar on the ethics of characters and actions, writers sometimes use passive voice to deflect attention (and potentially blame) from the agent of the sentence's actions. You might also want to avoid using passive voice in order to convince your reader that you are a credible, ethical writer.