How to detect Passive Voice

One of the rules of writing that seems to illicit a consistently passionate response (either in the negative or the positive) is active voice vs. passive voice.  The rule of thumb is that you should NEVER use passive voice in fictional exposition.

Technical writing?  Sure, no problem.

Fiction? Passive is BAD.  Unless it is done on purpose, that is.

That’s the rub; if you’re a novice practicing your craft, then you can’t do it.  Ever.  But, if you’re a professional then obviously you meant to use passive voice.  Active voice is generally considered stronger than passive voice, all things being equal, but it is often held as a dogmatic rule without room for compromise.  The problem is that there are very good reasons to use passive voice in our writing.  If people (editors, copywriters, or even ourselves) don’t fully consider the context of WHY we are using it, then our writing may be made less effective through editing.  So, when is it okay to use passive?  Well…that depends.

Let’s start with recognizing passive voice first. Here is a fun, and some would say pretty effective, way to recognize it;

Another generally effective way to recognize passive voice is in terms of telling someone (like your parents) about something that went wrong.  Think of it as avoiding responsibility – “the dish was broken,” or “my brother was hit by a balloon.”  Active voice can indicate who is responsible – “My sister broke the dish,” or “I hit my brother in the face with a balloon.”  This isn’t definitive by any means as it is just as easy to write a passive sentence with clear responsibility as it is to write an active sentence that leaves responsibility unclear.

These two things have helped me wrap my head around recognizing passive voice in my own writing.  It has also shown me that using passive voice gives the author some interesting options in how they choose to characterize an actor.

Passive voice could be used to show someone that is very passive and weak by showing that everything that happens to them is outside their control; they are merely there and in the way of things going on around them.  It could also be used to hide a character (or reduce the importance in a scene, depending on what you’re trying to do):

“An unknown horror from the depths of space, far beyond human imagination, tore Ellie apart last night.” – Cool, unknown horror.  Who was Ellie?  As an opening line, it is horrible.  But, in the middle of an exposition about a deep space crime scene investigator Duke Thruster (CSI:Jupiter), you don’t need to go into who Ellie is as a character as the mission of the scene may be to introduce Duke’s special skills and the fact that he is chasing an unknown horror. Ellie doesn’t matter and likely isn’t part of the story.


“Duke’s voice was hoarse from a night of drinking and crying. “Ellie was torn apart in the alley last night,” he said, stifling a sob. “I’m not sure…I think…we need to keep searching the alley.”  – More mysterious and there is a clear connection between Duke and Ellie; she is an important character all of the sudden.  Again, not a great line, but you get the point.

  • The use of the passive voice can also help narrow the meaning of statement in ways that using active voice cannot.  For example:
  1. “It shouldn’t be used…” by a zombie.  Passive, but broad in describing who shouldn’t use ‘it’.
  2. “You shouldn’t use…”  Active, but very narrow in it’s meaning.  It is also sort of passive in meaning in that I am merely recommending that you not use ‘it’.
  3. “People shouldn’t use…” Active, again, but I would say it is nearly as broad as the first, passive, sentence.
  4. “One shouldn’t use…” Active, but, again, it is narrow in meaning.  Perhaps not as narrow as “You”, but still pretty narrow.
  5. “Don’t use…” is active, and I’d say it was the most narrow as I could be talking directly to you in a potentially aggressive way.

It is interesting how different approaches can change the tone of sentence and how the actors are interacting with one another.

Are you using passive voice in some of your writing? If you are, and your doing it on purpose then nice job. If you are, and you don’t want to, then might be time for some editing.