Articles / On Writing

How to Spot Passive Voice

Passive voice. Do you know what it is? Can you spot it in your writing?

Passive voice is an indirect way of stating the result of an action upon your characters or the objects in your story. In general, it is best to state things directly using active voice, but there are exceptions to this rule. Please see Diva Jen’s article on this.

The reason editors point out passive voice is because it lends itself to sloppy writing that is unnecessarily wordy or vague. So, in today’s article, the divas are here to help you recognize passive voice so you can eradicate it from your writing (when appropriate).

Active Versus Passive Voice

In sentences using active voice, the action is performed by the subject.  Did you notice? In my explanation of active voice, I used passive voice.

Let’s look at this sentence again in active voice. In sentences using active voice, the subject performs the action.

 Simply put, when the subject of a sentence (present or implied) is not performing the action in the sentence, you have a case of passive voice.

Example A

Passive: The three dogs running through the field were shouted at by an irate farmer.

Active: The irate farmer shouted at the three dogs running through the field.

Example B

Passive: The fever was exacerbated by Sally’s unskilled care.

Active: Sally’s unskilled care exacerbated the fever.

The easiest way to spot this form of passive voice is to make note of the usage of the word “by.” This word tends to be an indicator of passive voice, but not always. By searching this word and revising your sentences, you’ll go a long way toward removing passive voice from your manuscript.

But there is another manner in which passive voice can hide. This is when the actor in a sentence is not stated.

Example C

Passive: The shirt was pressed, folded, and laid upon the bed.

Active: Jane pressed the shirt, folded it, and laid it upon the bed.

Example D

Passive: The shouting of that lunatic was heard over the speech.

Active: The crowd heard the shouting of that lunatic over the speech.

If a sentence leaves you asking the question “by whom” or “by what,” you have a case of obscured passive voice. In this example, the same holds true as for every case of passive voice: the subject of the sentence is being acted upon and not doing the acting.

Now, back to writing. 🙂


  1. Thanks for these fast examples.

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