“Passive Voice” was always one of those terms my English teachers chucked out there on my essays as if I knew what it meant already. As a result, I did what most students do: just pretended I understood what it meant (I guessed I was supposed to anyway!) and kept making the same mistake over and over and over. But allow me to clarify for you so that the next 100,000 times it comes up in your writing, you don’t make the same tragic mistake.

First a little tiny grammar lesson on parts of speech. A basic sentence generally has three parts: subject, verb, and object. Ex: Danny(subject) eats(verb) cheese(object). The “object” is what the subject is acting on: in this case Danny is acting on the cheese. There are two main ways of writing this sentence:

“Active Voice”: Danny eats cheese.

“Passive Voice“” The cheese is eaten by Danny.

In the passive voice, the true subject of the sentence is reversed with the true object in where it is relative to the verb. Danny is really the thing doing the verb, but is placed after the verb in passive voice. The fix is easy! Put true subjects before the verbs.

Is passive voice wrong: It will not get you on santa’s naughty list necessarily. Passive voice is actually a good call in many cases, and technically not illegal in standard English. But in formal English it’s frowned on, as it typically bungles clarity. It’s all well and good when you’re talking about cheese, but get a load of this trainwreck:

Passive: A picture that was objectified transcends individual experiments of what researchers would understand, and that seems to imply timeless universality, which is built up in our minds by scientific statements of theories that were posed.

??!!?? No clue what’s happening up there…

Active: Individual experiments by researchers transcend objectified pictures, and that seems to imply timeless universality, built up in our minds by scientific statements that these experiments posed.

Still crazy, but at least a slight chance of understanding the author!

Summary: At the end of the day passive voice is a stylistic choice, rather than a grammatical commandment, but if you’re looking to be understood, it’s best to at least understand what it is and try to limit it’s use in your writing as much as possible.