Passive Voice Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Group of businesspeople having discussions outside
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

In traditional grammar, the term passive voice refers to a type of sentence or clause in which the subject receives the action of the verb. For example, "A good time was had by all." Contrast with active voice.

The most common form of the passive in English is the short passive or agentless passive: a construction in which the agent (that is, the performer of an action) is not identified. For example, "Mistakes were made." (In a long passive, the object of the verb in an active sentence becomes the subject.) See the discussion of the passive gradient in Examples and Observations below.

Often the passive voice is formed by using the appropriate form of the verb to be (for example, is) and a past participle (for example, formed). However, passive constructions aren't always made up of be and a past participle. For example, see the discussion of the "get"-passive.

Though many style guides discourage use of the passive, the construction can be quite useful, especially when the performer of an action is unknown or unimportant. Passive constructions can also enhance cohesion.

Examples and Observations

  • Last week our dogwood tree was struck by lightning.
  • "Pandora, from Greek mythology, was given a box with all the world's evils in it."
    (Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture, 2008)
  • It is believed that in the elementary school a class of fifteen pupils for one teacher gives better results than either a class of three or a class of thirty."
    (Psychological Foundations of Educational Technology, ed. by W.C. Trow and E.E. Haddan, 1976)
  • "[Fern] found an old milking stool that had been discarded, and she placed the stool in the sheepfold next to Wilbur's pen."
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web, 1952)
  • "America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman who was looking for something else . . .. America was named after a man who discovered no part of the New World. History is like that, very chancy."
    (Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, 1965)
  • "Her bones were found
    round thirty years later
    when they razed
    her building to
    put up a parking lot."
    (Maya Angelou, "Chicken-Licken." Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, 1975)
  • "In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move."
    (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1979)
  • "Fiction was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale."
    (attributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
  • "The young gentleman was later seen by me in front of the gare Saint-Lazare."
    (Raymond Queneau, "Passive." Exercises in Style, 1947)

In Defense of the Passive Voice

"The proportion of passive verbs varies with the type of prose: scientific prose, for instance, may show far more passives than narrative prose. But to point this out is not to denigrate scientific writing. The difference merely reflects the different natures of content, purpose, and audience. . . .

"Not only is the passive voice a significantly frequent option in modern prose, but it is also often the clearest and briefest way to convey information. . . .

"Indiscriminate slandering of the passive voice ought to be stopped. The passive should be recognized as a quite decent and respectable structure of English grammar, neither better nor worse than other structures. When it is properly chosen, wordiness and obscurity are no more increased than when the active voice is properly chosen. Its effective and appropriate use can be taught." (Jane R. Walpole, "Why Must the Passive Be Damned?" College Composition and Communication, 1979)

True Passives, Semi-Passives, and the Passive Gradient

"The statistic from corpus analyses that four-fifths of passive sentences in texts occur without the agentive by-phrase makes a nonsense out of deriving passives from actives. In the active subjects are obligatory; there can be no active sentences without a subject. So where do all these passives with no agent come from whereby the agent is unknown? Not from an underlying active, obviously. It is common practice to assume a 'dummy' subject in such cases, equivalent to 'someone,' i.e. underlying My house was burgled is the sentence Someone burgled my house. But that is stretching a point beyond credibility. . . .

"[Randolph] Quirk et al. [in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, 1985] attempt to get over this problem by presenting a 'passive gradient' and the notion of semi-passive, exemplified by the following sentences:

(33) This violin was made by my father.
(34) This conclusion is hardly justified by the results.
(35) Coal has been replaced by oil.
(36) This difficulty can be avoided in several ways.
- - - - - - - - - - -
(37) We are encouraged to go on with the project.
(38) Leonard was interested in linguistics.
(39) The building is already demolished.
(40) The modern world is getting more highly industrialized and mechanized.
(41) My uncle was/got/seemed tired.

The dotted line indicates the break between real passives and semi-passives. Those above the line are real passives, those below the line are increasingly remote from the ideal passive with a unique active paraphrase, and are not real passives at all--they are semi-passives." (Christopher Beedham, Language And Meaning: The Structural Creation of Reality. John Benjamins, 2005)

Rise of the "Get"-Passive

"The passive in English is usually formed with the verb to be, yielding 'they were fired' or 'the tourist was robbed.' But we also have the 'get' passive, giving us 'they got fired' and 'the tourist got robbed.' The get-passive goes back at least 300 years, but it has been on a rapid rise during the past 50 years. It is strongly associated with situations which are bad news for the subject—getting fired, getting robbed—but also situations that give some kind of benefit. (They got promoted. The tourist got paid.) However, the restrictions on its use may be relaxing over time and get-passives could get a whole lot bigger." (Arika Okrent, "Four Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They're Happening." The Week, June 27, 2013)

When to Use the Passive Voice in Journalistic Writing

"Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald [in When Words Collide, 8th ed., Wadsworth, 2012] offer two situations in which the passive voice must be used. First, passive voice is justified if the receiver of the action is more important than the creator of the action. They use this example:

A priceless Rembrandt painting was stolen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday by three men posing as janitors.

In this case, the Rembrandt should remain the subject of the sentence even though it receives the action. The painting is obviously more important--more newsworthy--than the three men who stole it.

"Kessler and McDonald's second reason for using passive voice is if the writer has no choice. That's when the writer does not know who what the actor, or the creator of the action, is. The example they use:

The cargo was damaged during the trans-Atlantic flight.

Air turbulence? Sabotage? Was the cargo strapped in properly? The writer doesn't know, so the voice must be passive." (Robert M. Knight, A Journalistic Approach to Good Writing: The Craft of Clarity, 2nd ed. Iowa State Press, 2003)

Evasive Uses of the Passive Voice: "Mistakes Were Made"

  • "[W]hen [New Jersey Governor Chris Christie] said 'mistakes were made,' did he know he was quoting Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler, or did that particular obfuscatory use of the passive voice just pop into his head?" (Katha Pollitt, "Christie: A Bully’s Bully." The Nation, February 3, 2014)
  • "Mistakes were made. I didn't make them." (Chief of Staff and later Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Jr., on the Watergate scandals, January 1981)
  • "We did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so." (President Ronald Reagan, regarding the Iran-Contra affair, January 1987)
  • "Clearly, no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety. Obviously, some mistakes were made.” (Chief of Staff John Sununu, when caught using government military aircraft for personal trips, December 1991)
  • "Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently." (President Bill Clinton, when it was discovered that he had invited the country's senior banking regulator to a meeting with the Democratic Party’s senior fund-raiser, January 1997)
  • "I acknowledge that mistakes were made here." (Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, regarding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, March 2007)
  • "We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice--that is, until we have stopped saying 'It got lost,' and say, 'I lost it.'" (Sidney J. Harris, On the Contrary, 1962)