71 Passive Voice

Christina Frasier

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize passive constructions in writing
  • Identify reasons that passive voice is not appropriate for formal writing
  • Identify strategies to edit out passive voice


Passive voice is not technically a grammar problem. However, its use leads to lack of clarity and confusion for the reader. In its most basic form, passive voice is any form of the verb to be + a past participle. Being able to identify passive constructions is the first step in editing them out of your writing. Below are examples of sentence using passive voice and then their active voice edits.



  • Bad: The transition from high school to university is associated with high stress.

Problem: In this sentence the reader does not know exactly who the researchers are discussing. We can assume they are talking about college students, but you don’t want to make your reader assume the subject. 

  • Still bad: The transition from high school to university is associated with high stress for college students.

Problem: Although we now know who the subject is, the sentence still uses a passive construction.

  • Better: Researchers found a link between high stress and students’ transition from high school to university (King, et al., 2020, p. 2). 

Finally, we have a sentence where we know who is doing what: researchers have findings, and students are stressed out.


Let’s look at another example:


  • Bad: It is argued that universities need to augment their investment in mental health prevention initiatives.

Problem: Who is arguing? Also, why would anyone want to prevent mental health?

  • Better: Researchers argue that universities must prioritize students’ mental health (King, et al., 2020, p. 9).
  • Better: King et al. (2020) argue that universities must prioritize students’ mental health (p. 9). 

The edited sentences are clear about who is doing the arguing.


Here’s another example that sneaks in some bias, which you want to avoid:


  • Bad: Although college students are adults, they are not considered mature—after all, they are often called “college kids.”

Problem: This sentence is biased, and what’s worse is its passive voice hides the identity of the people who do not consider college students mature.

  • Better: Although some people colloquially refer to college students as “college kids,” they are adults.

Do not use passive voice to sneak in biased messaging!


There are people who use passive voice specifically to sneak in bias or to avoid responsibility. They are called politicians. Consider the following sentences:


  • Mistakes were made. (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and H. W. Bush all used this one)
  • The system is rigged. (Trump) 


As you can see, the political party doesn’t matter—politicians look to shift blame away from themselves and their administrations. 




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From College to Career: A Handbook for Student Writers Copyright © by Christina Frasier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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