If you’ve been online lately, chances are you’ve written something. And chances are you’ve had someone tell you that you should get a grammar checker to help you with that writing. Whether you’re sending an email to your boss or tweeting a message that’s going on your author profile, a grammar checker could help you make it error-free.
At least, that’s what the billion-dollar grammar checker industry wants you to believe. Just download and install one of these babies and you’ll be good to go for life. Who needs the slow, tedious, and often-expensive manual labour of editors anymore?
Well, as it turns out, the people who program those grammar checkers could seriously use some input from editors. Case in point: they have no idea how the passive voice works.
How do I know that? I’ve tried using several grammar checkers, and all of them trip up on “passive voice” in the exact same way. That suggests the underlying programming—and the people doing that programming—don’t understand it either.
So, what the heck is passive voice, and why is it so bad anyway? Let’s take a deep dive on everything you need to know about the passive voice—and why it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
What Is the Passive Voice?
To understand the passive voice, you have to understand English case structure and sentence structure. That sounds tough, but don’t worry. We’ll break it down.
Let’s start with how we structure our sentences, since you’ve probably seen this before. English tends to follow the following sentence structure:
Subjects and objects are indicated by the use of what are called cases. A case is sort of like how different verb forms indicate something happened at a different point in time.
- Present tense: I am
- Past tense: I was
Cases are for nouns, though, not verbs. You’ve probably seen them applied to pronouns:
- Subjective case: I
- Objective case: Me
- Possessive case: Mine
- Genitive case: Myself
These all refer to a first-person speaker, but the form of the word indicates the work it’s doing in the sentence:
- I am going to the store
- She was visiting me
- The book is mine
- I looked at myself in the mirror
The idea of passive and active voices zeroes in on the subjective/objective positions in the sentence. The sentences above are largely active voice, which means the subject of the sentence is performing the action.
The object of a sentence has an action done to them. In the second example, the first-person speaker is the object, because they are the recipient of the visit. The subject of the sentence (she) does the visiting.
Objects Where Objects Don’t Belong
The active voice puts the subject in the subject position. That’s the usual construction of most of our sentences, and it usually sounds the most “natural” to us.
Passive voice, on the other hand, puts the object into the subject position. Here are a couple of examples:
- I was visited by her.
- The store was frequented by me.
- The house was lived in by the people.
These are all passive voice—they sound clunky and unnatural. That’s why we’re exhorted to use the active voice: it has a simpler verb construction, it sounds better, and it’s more natural. Compare:
- She visited me.
- I frequented the store.
- The people lived in the house.
Those are all active voice.
What Grammar Checkers Get Wrong about Passive Voice
So, here’s where we run into the issue with the underlying programming of most grammar checkers. I’ve used Yoast, Grammarly, and Hemingway, and they all do the same thing.
They flag verb construction for passive voice.
Now, this is often an easy way to review potential passive voice. Take a look at the examples above again. The verb construction in the passive examples have to be verb phrases. The usual construction is helper verb + past tense or helper verb + gerund:
- The house is lived in by the people
- The book is being read by us.
However, this is where grammar checkers fail. You can flag verb construction as a potential indicator of passive voice. But passive voice is not a problem of verb construction. Take the following examples:
- She is vacationing in Florida
- I am graduating this spring
- The leaves had covered the ground
These sentences all use the typical verb constructions that get flagged as passive. But none of them are in the passive. It’s difficult to put the first two sentences into passive voice, actually:
- Florida is where she is vacationing.
- This spring is when I will graduate.
- The ground was covered by the leaves.
Note here that a couple of sentences wouldn’t even be flagged as passive voice by a grammar checker. That’s because grammar checkers don’t actually check for passive voice. They check verb construction.
How Did We Get So Confused about Passive Voice?
If nobody understands how passive voice actually works, why the heck is there this stiff rule against it?
You can thank Strunk and White for that. Their Elements of Style became the go-to grammar guide for many in the mid-twentieth century. For better or for worse, they’ve stuck around since.
Now, Strunk and White aren’t necessarily wrong to tell us to avoid the passive voice. As I pointed out above, it’s often a clunky, awkward, unnatural sounding construction.
As a result, we don’t use it nearly as often as people (and grammar checkers) think we do. Strunk and White included their stricture against it, but they didn’t fully understand it themselves. You can see that in the examples they give:
- The leaves were covering the ground.
That’s not, as we discussed, passive voice. We can see that if we diagram the sentence:
- The leaves were covering the ground
- [subject] [verb phrase] [object]
Since passive voice is an issue with the placement of the object, this one can’t be in passive voice. The ground is the object of the sentence, and it’s in the object position.
Why is “the ground” the object? The ground isn’t doing the action here. Instead, it’s being acted upon by the leaves. The leaves are the “doer” of the action, which makes them the subject. Since the leaves are the subject, or acting, and they’re in the subject position, the sentence is active voice.
So, what would this sentence look like if it was in the passive voice?
- The ground was covered by the leaves.
The ground, which is the object, is in the subject position. It is still being acted upon by the leaves (the subject). The leaves are still doing the action, so they’re still the subject.
Can Verb Construction Tip Us Off?
There’s something to be said for grammar checkers flagging certain verb constructions. They can act as a reminder to review our usage, to see if we are using passive voice.
More often than not, though, they’re actually just flagging a totally innocent verb tense: the present/past perfect or the present/past continuous.
Tense relays temporal information to us. In these cases, they tell us when an ongoing action started. They both indicate the action may not have finished yet.
We can see an example of this in one of our previous examples:
- She is vacationing in Florida.
You might have guessed this is present continuous. This verb tense suggests her vacation may have started in the past, but it’s currently ongoing. It’s something this person is doing right now!
Grammar checkers will flag this sentence as “passive voice.” To “fix it,” we could switch it to simple present or simple past:
- She vacations in Florida
- She vacationed in Florida
If our friend is still on vacation, though, neither of these sentences indicates the right temporal information. “She vacations” could imply that this is something our friend does on a regular basis, rather than something she’s doing right now.
Similarly, “she vacationed” could imply that the vacation is already over. We might be surprised that our friend turns down our invite for a Zoom meeting tomorrow, saying she’s still on vacation, because we thought she was home already.
Generally speaking, verb construction can’t show us if passive voice is in play. We have to swap around the subject and object to see if we’re using active vs. passive voice.
Can You Use a Better Verb?
In some cases, the grammar checker might be able to help us out by flagging these verb constructions. In many cases, there’s an easier way to phrase what we want to say. And there’s always the off-chance it does flag the passive voice (which is actually a lot less common than people think).
So, there’s a place for the grammar checker’s flags, but they’re incorrect when it comes to measuring true passive voice. We also have to be cautious about communicating incorrect temporal information by revising our verb tenses.
Is It Ever Okay to Use Passive Voice?
Yes. Generally speaking, Strunk and White aren’t wrong that using active is better. Most true examples of passive voice sound a little weird and clunky. That’s because the position of the object is unnatural to English speakers.
That said, there may be times you want to put the emphasis on the object versus the subject. Think about this:
- This house was lived in by Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
- Sir Wilfrid Laurier lived in this house.
Either sentence is grammatically sound. One is active and one is passive. The difference is the first example stresses the object: this house.
If you’re on a guided tour of the Laurier residence in Ottawa, using the passive voice would be quite all right! This very house we’re standing in right now was lived in by Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
If you want to put the emphasis on Laurier, then you’d use active voice.
The same might be true if we’re talking about people who have experienced abuse. The abusers carried out the actions, but we don’t want to put the focus on them. We’re more concerned with the people who were on the receiving ends of the action. So passive voice would be acceptable here as well, because it moves the focus.
That said, passive voice isn’t something you’re likely going to use a lot. It’s a lot less common than Strunk and White and most grammar checkers make it out to be, because they got tripped up in issues of verb construction, not the actual “issue” of passive voice.
Passive voice is also quite unnatural in most cases (“I was visited by her” doesn’t sound as good as “She visited me”). We tend not to use it much as a result.
Improve Your Writing with Help from an Editor
So there you have it: everything you ever wanted to know about passive voice and how it actually works. Unfortunately, as I said, grammar checkers aren’t going to help you track down and root out passive voice, because the people programming them haven’t given them the code to truly recognize it—likely because of their own misunderstandings of it, courtesy of Strunk and White.
With this guide, though, you should be on your way to understanding passive voice and rooting it out of your own writing, faulty grammar checker programming notwithstanding.
If you still need a hand, though, get in touch with the team here at Inkwell’s. We’re maybe not quite as a handy as a grammar checker, but our grammar programming is top-notch.