Can Action Verbs Be Written in Passive Voice?

A person with medium skin holds a book open in front of their body in front of a blurry outdoor background

Writing in active voice is often cited as a core part of plain language. Though the idea seems simple, it becomes confusing when you see phrases like active voice and active verbs used interchangeably. In this article, we’ll clarify the difference and help you choose the right voice to communicate your ideas. The better your understanding of language, the better you’ll communicate with your audience—and that’s the goal of plain language!

Verbs and Voice – What’s the Difference?

Because the words have similar rhythms, it feels natural to say active or passive voice as well as active or passive verbs, but they don’t mean the same thing. Verbs have different forms or conjugations depending on number, person, voice, tense, and mood. Voice is a way a verb can change when used, but the verb will always be the thing that expresses action. Here’s how it breaks down:

A verb is a word that expresses an action or a state of being, such as write, speak, teach, share, give, and argue. A bland verb might be called static or boring, but avoid calling it weak or passive, because those descriptors have specific meanings to linguists and others who study language. To say a verb is static or boring is to describe the quality of a verb and whether it paints a vivid picture or creates a sense of urgency for the reader or listener.

Voice describes one of five ways that a verb can change when used in a sentence. It always refers to the subject of an action (the actor) or the object of an action (the thing acted on). For example, I taught the student is written in active voice while the student was taught by me is written in passive voice, though the verb taught was the same in both sentences.

It’s possible to use an exciting verb yet still write in passive voice, such as the bill was trashed by the senator. Remembering that a powerful verb can have a passive construction should help you interpret writing rules and apply them consistently to your own work.

Active Voice and Passive Voice – Rules for Construction

In active voice, the subject (the actor) carries out the action expressed by the verb. It follows the standard story sequence where we get the information we need in the order we need it: Who did what to whom?

Transform your legal briefs from good to great with a sophisticated style editor.

Your writing is essential to your legal practice. Let WordRake help you create clear, concise writing.

Take My Writing from Good to Great

In passive voice, the story gets reversed. We learn what is acted on before we learn who did the acting. Here, the thing being acted on becomes the subject of the sentence, rather than the object of it. If the actor is named, it usually comes at the end of the sentence and follows the word by.

Let’s look at these examples where the subject is in green, the verb is in orange, and the object is in blue.

Active Voice:

These examples are in active voice. We learn who performed the action, what the action was, and what person or thing received the action, in order.

Sentence Sequence: actor (subject) 🡒 action (verb) 🡒 recipient of action (object)

The teachers’ union filed a complaint. (38 characters)

The trial judge denied the motion. (34 characters)

Congress rejected the bill. (27 characters)

Passive Voice:

These examples are in passive voice and include the actor, but reverse the order of the sentences above.

Sentence Sequence: recipient of action (subject) 🡒 action (verb) 🡒 actor

The complaint was filed by the teachers’ union. (47 characters)

The motion was denied by the trial judge. (41 characters)

The bill was rejected by Congress. (35 characters)

Passive Voice with Omitted Actor:

These examples are in passive voice and omit the actor as well as reversing the order of the first set of sentences. Though these sentences are missing essential information, they are still grammatically correct.

Sentence Sequence: recipient of action (subject) 🡒 action (verb) 🡒 actor

The complaint was filed. (25 characters)

The motion was denied. (23 characters)

The bill was rejected. (23 characters)

The key to correctly identifying passive voice is looking for its two parts: a verb that expresses an action and a form of to be (is, will be, was, has been, etc.). The focus must be on the recipient of the action. If the focus is still on the actor, you are not looking at a sentence in passive voice.

A fun way find passive voice is to use the Zombies Test created by Rebecca Johnson. To use the test, add by zombies after the verb in your sentence. If the sentence works with this addition, it’s in passive voice. If it doesn’t, then it’s in active voice.

Why Active Voice Matters in Plain Language

Active voice has two benefits over passive voice: clarity and brevity. Writers are urged to use active voice because it forces them to name the actor who performed an action. Because the sentence is clear and direct, it’s usually short. A sentence written in passive voice takes more words to say the say the same thing, and it risks introducing ambiguity by hiding responsibility and ownership.

Passive voice is also more difficult to follow because it reverses the order of the story, which defies expectations and makes it tough to track the activity. More ambiguity arises from ill-conceived attempts at brevity, which often leads to omitting the actor and raises the questions of who did what to whom. If your writing raises more questions than it answers, you are not meeting the goals of plain language.

When to Use Passive Voice

Though active voice is preferred, passive voice is not wrong. You can use passive voice for strategic effect. If you don’t know the actor, if the actor is unimportant, or you want to emphasize the action or the thing acted on, then passive voice can be a good choice. But be warned—a reader who cannot state rules of grammar can still spot sneaky use of passive voice designed to shirk responsibility or hide the truth! Save passive voice for when the actor is unknown or unimportant.

Use WordRake to Make Writing Direct

Did this article inspire you to work on your writing? Practice writing clearly and succinctly without omitting important information. Then try WordRake to train yourself to trim words and focus your message. In one click, WordRake analyzes your writing and suggests edits for clarity, brevity, and simplicity, right in Microsoft Word or Outlook. It’s the instant editor that lives in your computer! Try WordRake free for 7 days.

About the Author

Ivy B. Grey is the Chief Strategy & Growth Officer for WordRake. Before joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.


Transform your legal briefs from good to great with a sophisticated style editor.

Your writing is essential to your legal practice. Let WordRake help you create clear, concise writing.

Take My Writing from Good to Great

Our Story

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggested changes appear in the familiar track-changes style. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.