Analyze My Writing
Home About AMW Ideas Contact Privacy Terms

How Our Website Identifies Passive Voice

Go Back
Before reading about how our website identifies passive voice, the reader should know what the passive voice actually is. If you are not familiar with the difference between active and passive voice, you may to show (or hide) our explanation of passive voice. Otherwise, please continue reading.
We will give you two versions of how to identify passive voice yourself. The first version is is very wordy and full of linguistic jargon which most people find quite boring, and the second version, which you'll likely want to skip straight to, involves zombies.
Version 1
Active sentences typically have the form Subject + Verb + Object. We consider the following as a model sentence:
The dog chased the cat.
Writing our example sentence in passive form we have the following:
The cat was chased by the dog.
A typical passive sentence looks like Object + [to be]+ Past Participle of Verb + by + subject. We use [to be] to mean the verb "to be" written in the same tense as the as the active sentence. For instance, our example active sentence above is written in the "past simple" tense. So the passive form of the sentence uses the "past simple" of the verb "to be," i.e., "was."
Also, the past participle of a verb is an action which is, or has been done. For example, the past participle of "eat" is "eaten." The past participle of "do" is "done." The past participle of "open" is "opened." The past participle of "write" is "written." He has eaten a sandwich. She has opened the door. They have written a book together.
So can you construct the passive form of the following sentence?
The author wrote a masterpiece.
A masterpiece was written by the author.
The reader will also notice that the "by" part of the sentence can be left out. For example, "the cat was chased," or "a masterpiece was written," are perfectly fine sentences as they are, and if it's entirely unimportant who or what chased the cat, or who wrote the masterpiece, then we can leave it off if we like.
Children for whom English is their native language pick up on this rather quickly. For instance, no child would admit to their mother the following without some measure of trepidation: "Mom, I broke your vase." To soften the impact, and perhaps to absolve themselves of some responsibility, the child would most likely use a passive construction: "Mom, your vase was broken." Most children are more than happy to cut out the "by me" part.
So, in summary, how do you recognize when passive voice is being used? I just used it! "The passive voice is being used by me RIGHT NOW!"
In other words if you see:
1.the verb "to be" in some form, (i.e. is, am, are, was, were, being, been, has been, had been, etc.)
2.followed by a past participle of the verb (i.e. eaten, written, done, stopped, etc.)
then you might have a passive construction on your hands.
Version 2:
If you can add the words "by zombies" to your sentence and it still makes perfect sense, then it's very likely a passive sentence. For example... "The town was taken over..." can be be finished off with " zombies!"
"My car was stolen this morning zombies!"
"'Titanic' was nominated for an academy award zombies!"
"The mayor was removed from office zombies!"
All of the above zombie sentences are passive contructions. They were written with comic effect in zombies.
Our software identifies words which are found in typical passive constructions, namely, any form of the verb "to be" coupled with a past participle, and if any two of these are close enough together, our passive voice detector on our homepage points this out as a likely passive construction. It also identifies the word "by" to help you make the assessment.

How to Use our Detector

Our detector breaks your text up into individual sentences. Then it highlights every word which might be a part of a passive construction in blue. If some form of the auxiliary verb "to be" and a word which is likely a past participle are close together, we let you know by saying in green Check for Passive.
Sentence Passive?
1 HIGH above the city on a tall column stood the statue of the happy prince .
2 HE was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold for eyes he had two bright sapphires and a large red ruby glowed on his swordhilt . Check for Passive
3 I am glad there is some one in the world who is quite happy muttered a disappointed man as he gazed at the wonderful statue . Check for Passive
We can see that sentence 3 isn't really a passive sentence. However, since the words "is" and "muttered" (which only looks like a past participle) are close together, our software flags this sentence. The discerning user who knows the difference between active and passive voice is then free to revise as they see fit. In the case of sentence 3, we have what is known as a false positive.
The astute reader will also notice that our software doesn't always identify potential past participles. This is because the software can only make an educated guess at which part of speech a word belongs to. In this case we have a false negative. This is why the reader shouldn't fully invest their trust in any software. It is only a tool to help a writer identify where they may have have unwittingly slipped into passive voice without knowing it. And again, this is why the reader must have a firm grasp on the difference between active and passive voice themselves.
We also note that participial adjectives indicating a state rather than an action also present ambiguous cases. For example, the sentence "John was embarrassed." can be either passive or active depending on the intended meaning. When using "embarrassed" as an adjective to describe a state, this sentence is not passive (participial adjective). On the other hand, if someone (an agent) clearly embarrassed John, then the sentence is truly passive. A computer algorithm which could detect when the above sentence in question is truly passive or not would be remarkable indeed! And that is why you, dear reader, must be active when using any software which identifies passive!
Go Back

Links and References

Wikipedia Article on Passive Voice
© Analyze My Writing