The use of the passive voice in works of nonfiction is a highly debated subject in writers circles, where the active voice is generally the preferred choice.
In this article I’ll first explain what the passive voice is and when it’s okay to use it in nonfiction and then I’ll close with several examples of passive voice sentences in a variety of tenses to use as a reference in case you’re not sure how to structure them properly.
What is the Passive Voice?
In technical terms, the passive voice is made out of two elements: the verb “to be” in various tenses followed by a past participle (e.g. “The town was founded by southern settlers.”)
In terms of usage, the passive voice is applied when there’s a need to shift the focus from the subject to the object of a sentence. Although in most nonfiction writing use of the active voice is the preferred choice, since it makes the message much more direct and clear, there are cases when the passive voice is useful.
How it is Different from the Active Voice?
In the passive voice, the object of the sentence is placed ahead of the subject. In the above example, “town” is the object of the sentence and “southern settlers” is the subject. In the active voice, the subject is placed ahead of the object. In this case, the above sentence would be rewritten as: “Southern settlers founded the town.”
How do You Use Passive Voice in Nonfiction?
In certain nonfiction books, such as scientific or technical texts, it may be of more interest to highlight, say, a scientific breakthrough rather than the scientists who developed the breakthrough. For example, here’s a sentence written in the passive voice: “The leading vaccine for the XYZ virus was developed in record time by a team of scientists from five countries.”
The active voice equivalent for the above sentence would be: “A team of scientists from five countries developed the leading vaccine for the XYZ virus in record time,” but if the central theme of the text is the discovery of a new vaccine against the XYZ virus, the audience won’t care so much to know who the scientists are or how many countries they came from.
First-time nonfiction writers often fall into the trap of using the passive voice to “hide” behind their words, which muddles the message they’re trying to communicate.
For example, if you write the following sentence: “This weight-loss technique was specifically developed by me to help people who suffer from type II diabetes, which has been a part of my life since I was a teenager,” there’s a sense that you may be trying to hide behind your words because the goal of the sentence is for other type II diabetes sufferers to identify with your own journey.
But if you were to rewrite it in the active voice like this: “I specifically developed this weight-loss technique to help people who suffer from type II diabetes, which has been a part of my life since I was a teenager,” you’re being much more clear and direct with your readers, giving them a chance to identify with the subject of the sentence: you.
Nonfiction Passive Voice Examples
Here are some useful examples in a variety of tenses so that you can get an idea of how the passive voice works in different circumstances. Feel free to use this as a reference in case you get stuck:
(Note: PP means “past participle”)
is + PP
are + PP
Corn is grown by farmers in the Midwest
Most electric cars are bought by Californians
am being + PP
is being + PP
are being + PP
are going to + PP
I am being made to wait by the doctor
The engine is being repaired by the mechanic
The travel plans are being made by the agent
Several meals are going to be cooked by them
has been + PP
have been + PP
Susan has been picked up by the taxicab
The players have been selected by the scout
was + PP
were + PP
The gate was installed by the contractor
The curtains were dry-cleaned by her
was being + PP
were being + PP
He was being kept alive by science
The plans were being altered by the man
had been + PP
The chairs had been brought inside by staff
will be + PP
am going to be + PP
is going to be + PP
are going to be + PP
The house will be vacuumed by me tomorrow
I am going to be promoted by my boss soon
A new assistant is going to be hired by my partner
The parts are going to be delivered by the supplier
will have been + PP
The project will have been delayed by legislation
If you decide to use the passive voice in a work of nonfiction, make sure that you do so judiciously and use it only in those cases where the object of your sentences need to take precedence over the subject. A good test would be to ask yourself: Is the use of the passive voice in this sentence justified by the context, or am I trying to hide behind my words?
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or need any help – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling writers (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghost writing, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.