Is It Okay to Use Passive Sentences?

If you are asking if it acceptable to use passive sentences, then you have probably heard this advice a million times:

Do not use passive voice. 

Or this related advice:

Avoid linking verbs and use active verbs instead.

While those two pieces of advice have merit, it is practically impossible to always follow them.

See what I mean? The previous sentence contains two passive verbs–have and is.

I could attempt to rewrite the sentence.

The advice about linking verbs has merit.

It is advice with merit.

It is meritorious advice.

I believe the advice has been found to have merit.

Two minutes later, and I still haven’t found a way to avoid the linking verb.

Meritorious advice most of the time, but not something you can always get right.

That doesn’t sound right either—right or wrong is not the issue.

Another minute of fiddling with the sentence and I wind up with this:

Follow that advice when you can; however, you will not find success 100% of the time.

Good.  Finally a sentence that avoids both passive structure and linking verbs.

But I’m not too fond of it for two reasons.  The first is time, and the second style.

Using passive sentences can save you time

Time is Money

The average sentence contains 15 to 20 words, and a 1,000-word blog post contains 50 to 60 sentences.  If five or six of those sentences use linking verbs or passive voice, then 90% of your sentences are in the active voice.  Not bad.

At that point, you should consider if the additional time revising those six sentences is worth your time.  Are readers going to notice that several sentences in the blog post are in passive voice or use a linking verb?  I argue that the principle of diminishing returns suggests that you spend your time on your next piece of writing instead.

If you are intent on rooting out passive voice, check out the Passive Voice Detector.  Enter your text, and it will identify passive voice.

Sometimes Passive Voice is Preferred

In some situations, the passive voice better suits the purpose of the sentence. 

1–To Emphasize the Action Being Taken, Not Who Took It

Alana offered Jim additional responsibilities.

Jim was offered additional responsibilities.

If the context is to show what Alana did, then the active voice would be appropriate.  But if the point is that Jim has finally proven himself, then you can use the passive sentence.

2–To Avoid Repetition

If a person was identified in one sentence, the reader would not need to have that name repeated:

Sylvia Jones, the district manager, will lead a sales meeting tomorrow.  Sylvia Jones is considered a dynamic speaker.

Sylvia Jones is the focus of those sentences.  Now compare that to this sentence:

Sylvia Jones, the district manager, will lead a sales meeting tomorrow.  She is considered a dynamic speaker.

If I feel that other people’s opinions are important, then I would write:

Sylvia Jones, the district manager, will lead a sales meeting tomorrow.  Many people consider her a dynamic speaker.

3–When It Applies to the General Public

When the situation applies to everyone, passive voice is acceptable.

All the company’s products can be bought online.

Compare that to

You can buy all the company’s products online.

Anyone can buy all the company’s products online.

Again, the writer should consider what deserves to be focused on—the company or the consumers.

I will add a caveat to this example.  We sometimes want to create a feeling of informality, and in that case, “you” would be a better choice. 

And yes, I could have written that last sentence in the active voice, but here is why I didn’t:

If you want to create an informal tone, you should choose to use “you.”

Style is Important

I am not suggesting that style is more important than correctness, but you choose style over convention.  The rule about passive voice should not be called a “rule”—it is a suggestion.  Ask yourself which the reader will notice first—whether you use passive voice or whether you use needless repetition to avoid the passive voice.

That brings me back to my original point.  Here is the sentence that I wrote without passive voice:

Follow that advice when you can; however, you will not find success 100% of the time.

To my ear, the repetition of “you” sticks out more than the use of passive voice and linking verbs of the first sentence.

  •  While those two pieces of advice have merit, it is practically impossible to always follow them.

(For the grammar sticklers, I know that there is a “rule” somewhere about not splitting an infinitive (thank the Victorians for it), but that rule is headed on the dust heap of rules that have been discarded.  I see a new blog post on the horizon.)

Here’s the Good News About Passive and Active Voice

You can use passive verbs

Since the advice about voice and verbs is a guideline, not a rule, you can choose to follow it or ignore it.  We write to communicate, and your audience will get far more annoyed by unnecessary repetition or actually grammatical mistakes. 

See what I mean?

One more piece of good news:  the more you write, the easier it becomes to spot the use of passive voice and correct yourself mid-sentence.  So don’t get bogged down in eliminating every linking verb or passive sentence.  Write more so that you develop the ability to correct yourself on the spot.

I would love to hear what you think.

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Is It Okay to Use Passive Sentences?

You can use passive sentences when you want to emphasize the action being taken, to avoid repetition, and when a situation applies to the general public.

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