Communication Skills

JS Tip 22: From the Writing Workshops: Three Warning Flags for Passive Voice

Passive voice will generally display three warning flags.

Your first warning flag is some form of the verb “to be.”

Look at the sentence: The report was written by Sarah. Is there any one of the eight forms of “to be”: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been?

Sure there is: Was as in “was written.”

If you have some form of the verb “to be,” continue to the second warning flag. If you don’t, you probably don’t have passive voice.

Your second warning flag is when the word describing the action ends in “-ed,” “-en,” or some variation. (Grammarians call this a past participle, but don’t worry about that. That won’t be on the test.)

The report was written by Sarah.

What’s the word describing the action? “Written.” What’s the ending? “-en.” Bingo. You’ve picked up the second warning flag.

Your third warning flag is how, when you get to the word describing the action, you can ask yourself the question, “By whom?” or “By what?”

Think of our example: The report was written by Sarah.

When you get to the word describing the action, “written,” can you ask yourself “By whom?” Sure, you can. That’s a natural question. Who did it? Who wrote the report?

If you find all three warning flags, then you probably have passive voice. We’ll explore rewriting passive into active in our next tip.

We have no winner yet on last week’s passive-voice contest. (Andy Freeman of IMFT suggested a Latin quotation, but nobody else had heard of it.) If you can think of a memorable quotation in passive voice, let us know.