The Ten Commandments of Writing:

7. Thou Shalt Not Write Passive Sentences

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“white New York baseballl” by Y U C E L M O R A N on Unsplash

In the Bible’s Old Testament, God speaks directly to Moses and gives him the Ten Commandments. Fortunately, a similar code exists for writers. The seventh commandment of writing follows.

7. Thou Shalt Not Write Passive Sentences.

The Philadelphia Phillies were defeated by the New York Yankees.

Is the previous sentence written correctly? Yes and no. On one hand, the sentence is correct grammatically because it has both a subject (Phillies) and a predicate (were defeated). However, the sentence is not stylistically correct because it’s written in the passive voice. In fact, when I wrote that sentence, my word processing program underlined the sentence in green and suggested that I change it to the following: “The New York Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies.”

Obviously, both sentences say the same thing, so does anyone really care about the structure of the sentence? Yes, as a matter of fact. Millions of Yankee fans care. This triumph over the Phillies in 2009 was the Yankees’ 27th World Series victory, and these fans would much rather see their beloved Yankees at the front of the sentence instead of the Phillies. In other words, they’d rather see the sentence written in the active voice than in the passive voice.

An active sentence puts the key performer of the sentence up front where he or she can stand out and really get credit for his or her actions. A passive sentence, however, puts the performer at the end of the sentence where he or she does not stand out as much. Look at the following two sentences; the first is active, and the second is passive:

Andy Pettitte struck out Ryan Howard.

Ryan Howard was struck out by Andy Pettitte

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“woman sitting in front of black table writing on white book near window” by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

Not only is the first sentence shorter, more direct and more powerful, but its structure also highlights the pitcher who caused the strike out rather than the batter who was struck out. Thus, as much as possible, you should strive to use the active voice rather than the passive voice.

Is the passive voice ever acceptable? Yes, but only in certain situations. If you want to focus more on the action itself than on the person who performed the action, you may use the passive voice. For example, if you’re hosting a party and you’re waiting for the pizza to arrive, you probably don’t care who delivers the pizza as long as it arrives on time. In that case, you might use the passive voice to say to your guests, “The pizza was delivered” rather than the active voice, “The guy from Domino’s delivered the pizza.”

You can also use the passive voice if you don’t know who performed the action or if the identity of the performer is unimportant. Let’s say you have to check an entire building to make sure all the lights are out. In that case, you might say to your supervisor, “When I got to the third floor, the lights were already turned out.”

Finally, you may want to use — or be required to use — the passive voice in certain scientific situations. If you’re reporting on an experiment, for instance, and you want your actions to be viewed as purely objective, you may want to remove yourself from the report. So, instead of writing, “I filled the beaker with water,” you might write, “The beaker was filled with water.” Regarding scientific assignments, you should always check with your instructors to see which voice or point of view they prefer.

So now that you understand the difference between active and passive sentences, you know that most writing should be in the active voice. Thus, the conclusion of this essay could say the following: “Passive sentences should not be written by you.” Obviously, however, a better alternative follows: “You should not write passive sentences.”

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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