Passive Voice | Always an Error?

When I hear or see the grammatical term “passive voice,” I recall my freshman high school English teacher.  Not once did Miss Tatum ever concede that passive voice was not an error! Use of passive voice in her classroom was strictly prohibited.

However, there are times when passive voice becomes the better choice.  An article in the Purdue OWL provides interesting examples.  Perhaps these arguments would have changed Miss Tatum’s mind.  Then again, maybe not.

According to the referenced article, and many other reference books and sites, quite often passive voice is the better choice over active voice depending on certain characteristics of the agent performing the action: obviousness, importance, whenthe writer wishes to postpone identifying the agent or mentioning the agent at all, or when perhaps the agent is unknown.

Below is an interesting diagram provided by the Purdue OWL which brings clarity to this defense of the use of passive voice.


The dispatcher is notifying police that three prisoners have escaped.

Surgeons successfully performed a new experimental liver-transplant operation yesterday.

“Authorities make rules to be broken,” he said defiantly.


Police are being notified that three prisoners have escaped.

A new experimental liver-transplant operation was performed successfully yesterday.

“Rules are made to be broken,” he said defiantly.

DISCLAIMER:  Despite this interesting item in the Purdue OWL, a good writer will always make the best choice for his or her own work. In most instances, choosing active voice is the better form.  However, here we can see incidences where passive voice works better.

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What are your thoughts on the use of passive voice?  Is it always a grammatical error, or sometimes the better choice?

11 thoughts on “Passive Voice | Always an Error?

  1. This is very true, and something that I have had a struggle with while writing in the past. I too had a professor who didn’t condone the use of passive voice, but sometimes it is the only clear choice. Thank you for this thoughtful post:)

    1. Ionia, don’t know how it happened but somehow I overlooked responding to your comment. I do appreciate the time you take to come here and read. Thanks so much!

  2. The rule I’ve followed is to use the passive voice when the entities performing the action are not known or when the focus is on the action being performed and the entities performing it are not important. For example, we don’t need to know that surgeons performed the operation; who else would do it? Unless someone besides “surgeons” is performing the surgery, or unless we need to know who the specific surgeons were, including the subject is superfluous. Side note: always heed when administrators and politicians use the passive voice, as it usually indicates they are trying to avoid placing responsibility. For example, Reagan’s great response to Iran-Contra: “Mistakes were made.”

      1. keep the grammar posts coming! Love your blog. Addendum: the point about Reagan and the passive voice is from the book “Sin and Syntax” by Constance Hale

  3. I great grammar post – thanks, Sherrey. I also agree that passive voice is sometimes the right choice. Active vs. passive voice is one of those important ‘rules’ that warrant a focused revision of a manuscript; I remember doing a complete read-through of my memoir with the sole objective of catching those ‘passive’ slips of the pen.

    1. Belinda, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Those “‘passive’ slips of the pen” are illusive little characters!

      1. Aren’t they just! Maybe writers revert to passive voice when they slip into a Zen state; we should be alert when we write 🙂 Again, great article, Sherrey – thanks.

  4. Rules are made to be broken. They identify a principle but there are always exceptions to it. You illustrate that very well in this great post, Sherrey.

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