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?