Passive voice

When I speak of excessive use of passive voice (or passive verbs) I refer to the over use of “to be” verbs: is, are, was, were, be, being, been and am.

Passive verbs are to writing what salt is to the American diet. The human body needs salt- and if and when it is totally eliminated from a person’s diet that person will eventually die. But we tend to eat way too much salt. It’s everywhere! It has become a health problem that leads to health problems and the early death of too many people (fat works in the metaphor too).

Same with passive verbs. Good writing will have a few – but first drafts always have too many – and with some students I only see first drafts. We have to learn to reduce our reliance on passives.


  • can make sentences longer than they need to be – resulting in wordy constructions
  • hide or obscure agency – who did what? Politicians have long used passives for non-apologies for various heinous acts
  • suck the life out of writing. Active verbs have more … action. Stuff happens.
  • were once tacitly, if not explicitly, encouraged in medical schools. In 2006, my boss at the KU Med Writing Center showed me research that indicates this habit – with the intent to hide agency in case of malpractice cases – actually exacerbates the filing of malpractice suits. Modern med schools now, at least publicly and officially, no longer encourage passive voice in medical reports (eg. “the patient’s temperature was 106” is now better, “the nurse recorded the patients temperature at 106” ).

Sometimes the problem may come from cognitive malware installed by previous writing instructors, such as directives “Don’t use first person in any writing!” in which the teacher probably meant to address other issues such as wordiness and over-reliance on opinion rather than fact or support. I don’t mind an occasional use of first person – especially if it reduces passive verbs.

There’s an online interactive tutorial from that we should use in class. I’ve also started collecting links re: passive voice/ passive verbs on the social bookmarking site.