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  • Richard Crum


[blog 05192020]

Using passive voice

without clear intent

of what writer is after

Example: "What bit you?"

"I was bitten by a dog."

The Flaw: The question is what bit you, not what happened to you. The intent of the writer is to convey who or what bit the person. But the writer is clumsy with the structure of the answer. To write I was bitten by a dog answers the question what happened to you? The writer used passive voice was bitten to create the flaw. The correct way to write this passage is to use the active voice bit. Thus the correct way to write the passage is:

"What bit you."

"A dog bit me."


Some people trying to be witty say English is schizophrenic. It hears and speaks in two voices. Fact is: mentally sane English does hear and speak in two voices: active and passive. The easiest way to see the difference between the two voices is to look at active voice first.

Simply, an active voice verb is always followed by a direct object. Example: A dog bit me. The verb (predicate [see blog #1]) is followed by the pronoun me. This pronoun receives the action of the predicate verb bit. The verb is called active because it moves the action forward in the sentence. The action moves from the subject John forward to the direct object me. Because there is forward movement (activity [active]) the sentence is known as an active voice sentence.

In contrast, a passive voice sentence goes nowhere, at least it doesn't move the sentence forward. If anything, it throws the emphasis of the sentence backward, back onto the subject. Example: I was bitten by a dog.There is no direct object. By a dog is a prepositional phrase, and a preposition phrase cannot be a direct object, according to English grammar rules. Thus the emphasis of the predicate was bitten is thrown back onto the subject "I". The sentence makes no forward movement. It ends where it begins, with the subject "I." Thus with no active voice shouting "forward action," the only voice left to be heard is the passive voice, proclaiming "no forward movement."


The quick rule-of-thumb answer is the active voice. Why? Because it conveys action. And action (movement) is what catches and holds the interest of the reader. So in general prefer the active voice to the passive voice.

But beware: This oft-quoted rule of thumb does not consider the writer's intended meaning. As we see in the above example, the intention of the writer is to put emphasis on the thing that did the biting (What bit you?), not on the act of what happened (I was bitten). Thus active voice must be used to make the answer direct and to the point. To use passive voice (I was bitten) makes the answer verbose, redundant, and slightly evasive. Such a flaw can disturb a careful reader and cast doubt on the writer's ability.

However, if the intention of the question is "What happened to you?" Then only the passive voice can correctly be used to answer (I was bitten by a dog ). Here the emphasis is on the subject and what happened to the subject, not who or what did the act. Only the passive voice can correctly answer the question (I was bitten) because the subject is the receiver of the action, not the agent doing the action.

If the answer does not include who or what did the biting (by a dog), then the follow up question would be "What bit you?" Now the writer's intent switches to an agent doing the action. Thus the writer must employ active voice to correctly write the answer (A dog bit me.)

So it becomes clear that neither active or passive voice is better than the other. They are both best. Which to use depends largely on the intent the writer is trying to convey.


The passive voice is formed by using a tense of the be verb (is, am, are, was, were, will be) followed by the past participle form of the main verb appropriate to the passage. The

past participle form of bite is bitten. Therefore, to write I was bitten by a dog, the writer uses past tense of be (was) and past participle of bite (bitten).

To conclude, the trick of using active and passive voice is to watch our step. We mustn't be clumsy and stumble by using the voice that fails to address clearly the intention we (or our characters) are trying to convey to the reader.

I'll be coming back soon with another blog about clumsy writing and how to avoid it. Meanwhile, keep scribbling. Remember, the pen is mightier than the pandemic.


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