The Passive Voice Gets a Bad Rap

By Ryan Hickey + updated on July 20th, 2011

At EssayEdge, we spend a lot of time thinking about, reading about, and directly working with the written word (go figure). In doing so, one of the things that both amuses and frustrates me is popular opinion of the passive voice. From many guides out there, you would think that use of the passive voice was on par with using a word like “ain’t” or chat speak in terms of major writing mistakes.

There are several reasons for this. The first probably has to do with the word “passive” itself. In much of society today, almost anything that is considered to be “passive” is thought of in a negative way.

Another problem is the proliferation of media that encourage short, if not cryptic, communications, and it is true that constructions rendered in the active voice tend to be shorter than constructions rendered in the passive voice. (side note: this can actually be a great reason for using more active voice in your admissions essay, since it can save you space when working under a tight word limit)

Even though the passive voice is routinely condemned, many people still have trouble defining and identifying it. Let’s take a crack at that to start.

What is the passive voice?

Simply put, the difference between the passive voice and the active voice is this:

In the active voice, a subject performs an action.

In the passive voice, a subject has an action performed upon it.

An example:

Active Voice:

This blog posting discusses the passive voice.

Passive Voice:

The passive voice is discussed in this blog posting.

It’s important to be aware that when you change the first sentence to the second sentence, you change the subject of your sentence: this means that you change the focus of your sentence.

The first sentence would be a good introduction to a paragraph in which you are discussing other blog postings – since the topic is the blog posting itself.

The second sentence could be a good introduction to a paragraph discussing other sources of information about the passive voice – since the topic is the passive voice.

This is what people tend to forget when they become obsessed with removing the passive voice from essays and other written material.  Nine times out of ten, if you change a passive construction to an active construction, you will change the subject of your sentence.

In terms of your application essays, changing the subject of your sentence can be a bad idea.  Consider this sentence:

When I was 12, my mother was diagnosed with cancer.

This sentence in the passive voice is quite powerful with respect to its content.  If you change this sentence to an active construction, you will have to introduce the agent who diagnosed your mother with cancer.  This will probably look something like this:

When I was 12, doctors diagnosed my mother with cancer.

This sentence does not say the same thing, does it?  The focus of this sentence is on the doctors, not on your mother.

Passive voice only becomes a problem when it appears in several sentences in succession. When this happens, the text can become vague to the reader because, once again, the agent behind all of the action is lost in the text.

Passive voice when overused can be a problem. But if the most natural way of presenting your statement is in the passive voice, do not be afraid of it. There’s nothing technically wrong with it and like most elements of grammar, it has its place in the writing world.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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