What is passive voice?

In historical writing, authors often use passive voice. Passive voice is when the object of the sentence holds the place that traditionally belongs to the subject. Because of this structure, the verb happens to the object. Let's look at an example: 

Example 1: Poland was invaded by Germany. 

In this sentence, Poland takes the natural place of the subject, but Poland wasn't the invader. The invasion happened to Poland

What's wrong with passive voice?

One major problem with passive voice, from a historical and ethical standpoint, is that it takes responsibility from the true subject that did the action and places it on the object that received it (which often means responsibility shifts from an aggressor to a victim). This becomes even more problematic because the true subject (the actor) is often omitted from the sentence entirely. Let's look at two more examples:

Example 2: Native American children were denied the right to practice their languages and customs by boarding school operators.

Example 3: Non-Aryan people were killed in concentration camps during the Holocaust.

In the first sentence, the phrase Native American children holds the place of the subject. However, the children weren't actors; they were victims of cruel practices. Boarding school operators were the ones who actually acted out the verb, denied. Likewise, the phrase Non-Aryan people holds the place of the subject in the next example, but non-Aryan people were not the ones doing the killing. In fact, the sentence doesn't say who the killer was. This structure takes responsibility entirely off the actor, because they go unnamed. 

How do I know when I'm using passive voice?

Passive-voice expressions always include a verb phrase that uses both the action verb and a form of to be. These forms include the past tense was and were; the present tense am, are, and is; the future tense will be; and the progressive tense has been and have been. In historical writing, you'll most often encounter the past tense and the progressive tense (progressive is just a fancy way of saying something happened in the past and is continuing into the present and maybe even the future). You can see this in each of the examples above: 

  • Example 1: was invaded
  • Example 2: were denied
  • Example 3: were killed

Another way to recognize passive voice sentences is that, when they do include the true subject, that subject almost always comes at the end of the sentence following the word "by…" You can see this in two of the examples above: 

  • Example 1: by Germany
  • Example 2: by boarding school operators

These verb + to be pairings and the word by bring us to our second problem with passive voice. This sentence structure is almost always unnecessarily wordy, and wordiness gets confusing for your readers.

How do I fix passive voice? 

When writing about history, it's important to be as clear as you possibly can. That means using active voice. Active voice is the opposite of passive voice. This sentence structure is clear, concise, and assigns responsibility to the true subject who is doing the action.

In a simple sentence 

Turning a passive voice sentence into an active one is pretty easy when there's a by phrase at the end. All you need to do is move the person, group, etc. that comes at the end of the sentence to the beginning and drop the to be part of your verb phrase. Let's try it:

Example 1: Poland was invaded by Germany.  →  Germany invaded Poland. 

In a complex sentence

Sometimes, when the sentence is more complex, you may find that you have to move other phrases around in the sentence to make it sound logical. Let's take a look at our second example for that: 

Example 2: Native American children were denied the right to practice their languages and customs by boarding school operators. →  Boarding school operators denied Native American children the right to practice their languages and customs. 

In this case, the information that was originally in the middle of the sentence (the right to practice their languages and customs) now fits more naturally at the end of the sentence. 

In a sentence missing a true subject

Turning passive voice into active voice can be more difficult when the true subject is omitted from the sentence. If there's no by phrase at the end, you'll need to spend some time thinking and reviewing your sources. Who really carried out the action in your sentence? Let's return to our third example:

Example 3: Non-Aryan people were killed in concentration camps during the Holocaust.  →  Death's Head units killed non-Aryan people in concentration camps during the Holocaust. 

Notice in this example that the wording is specific to the units that were in charge of operating the concentration camps. Specificity is important for making sure that you as the historian aren't lumping people together based on nationality, political affiliation, etc., who may not have been involved in the actual event. Simply naming "Germans" or "Nazis" as the subject is wildly inaccurate, since not all German citizens nor all members of the Nazi party were military personnel. It will take critical thinking to identify the true subject.

Of course, when working with historical evidence, there are often gaps and missing facts; these are the only cases in which we recommend sticking to a passive voice sentence with an omitted subject or using the phrase possibly by before identifying a potential subject. In this situation, passive voice can actually be beneficial because it helps you avoid unfairly assigning responsibility to the wrong party. 

Note: You may also write about positive events that produced good things. In those cases, strive to give credit where credit is due and to assign praise to the people who deserve it.

The results 

Now that we've revised all three examples, let's take a look at one last thing. Notice in each sentence that the language sounds clearer and is more concise. Best of all, the sentences place responsibility where it belongs. The examples don't blame or demean the actor, but neither do they dismiss the severity of the action. They simply state who did what to whom and do their best to give an accurate historical portrayal.