I am a university student. I submitted an essay and a professor told me I should avoid passive voice with examples. But some of those examples sounded weird to me. When I asked the professor about this, she sent me a reply as following:

Everyone is having [CH1] a hard time.
[CH1]Passive voice – try to avoid if possible. Rephrase to active

This is a complete sentence, but it is passive voice, because it combines a variant of the verb "to be" with another verb, in this case "is" + the verb "have".

So, you could make this more active by re-writing like so: Everyone has experienced a hard time. -or- Everyone has had a hard time.

Notice how the verb "to be" has been eliminated from this sentence.

Arendt also mentioned that he had no motives at all, but never realized what he was doing[CH1] , although it is still controversial if he really did not know what he was doing apart from no evil intention.

"was doing" is passive, because it mixes "was" + the verb "to do". You can rewrite to active llike so:

Arendt also mentioned that had no motives at all, but never realized what he had done, although controversy persists over whether he really did not know what he had done. Lankford (2009), however, argues that brutal behavior expressed by the soldiers is not [CH1] from their dispositions, but it is the result of systematic and situational factors. [CH1]Passive – can you rewrite to active?

Here, it's not technically passive voice, but the use of the verb "is" here is a bit weak. You can rewrite and make it more interesting by eliminating the verb "is": Lankford, however, argues that brutal behavior expressed by the soldiers derives not from their dispositions, but results from systematic and situational factors.

Isn't passive voice be + p.p.? I thought be + -ing was active voice. Is there something I don't know about passive voice? Should I avoid using to be verb in essay regardless of active or passive voice?

  • 6
    "Everyone is having a hard time" is not passive. This is the progressive "be", not the passive one.
    – BillJ
    Apr 12 at 16:06
  • 7
    Your professor is talking nonsense, I'm afraid. The cliché 'A good time was had by all' is the passive voice (but no-one ever says 'A hard time was had by all'!). Apr 12 at 16:22
  • 2
    For a while now, robots call anything passive. However, "Everyone is having a hard time" is fixed, even for those on autopilot, by using a more exciting and descriptive verb than 'is having': Everyone currently experiences challenges. Everyone now struggles with X. Even Everyone is struggling (Oy, the verb to be) now. Apr 12 at 16:35
  • 2
    You are right. Your teacher, unfortunately is wrong. None of the examples they mention are passive voice apart from the one that they say is technically not passive voice (expressed by soldiers). Example 1 is present continuous in the active voice. Example 2 "what he was doing" is again active voice, this time past continuous. Example 3 does contain a passive clause expressed by soldiers which modifies the noun phrase/nominal brutal behaviours. Apr 12 at 16:58
  • 7
    It is an unwritten rule of the universe that people (aka saps) who advocate against the passive must not be able to recognise a passive when it bites them on their proverbial backsides, yet alone in anyone else's writing. It is the inability to recognise what a passive is which makes one eligible to pontificate about it to others. And that's a fact. You can actually go and fact-check it. It really is a rule of the universe. More inviolable and fundamental than the laws of motion. Apr 12 at 17:08

The essence of a passive construction is its framing of an idea so that the object of the action (the thing done) appears before the verb and the agent of the action (the thing responsible for performing the action) appears after the verb or not at all.

Here is an active construction:

Bozo the Clown made mistakes.

Here is a passive construction with the actor identified:

Mistakes were made by Bozo the Clown.

And here is a passive construction with the actor omitted:

Mistakes were made.

As a matter of style, one might prefer the directness and simplicity of "Bozo the Clown made mistakes" to "Mistakes were made by Bozo the Clown"; but from a reader's perspective, the latter describes the situation just as clearly as the former does. In contrast, "Mistakes were made" leaves the actor out of the account, which benefits no one but Bozo the Clown.

Unlike the second and third examples above, the following construction is not passive:

Bozo the Clown was making mistakes.

It is active because it places the actor or subject (Bozo the Clown) before the verb and the object or thing done (mistakes) after the verb. Your professor may not like constructions that use words of the form "was [verb]ing" or "is [verb]ing," but such constructions are not passive.

Your professor seems to have conflated the notion of "active" versus "passive" constructions with the notion of "weak" versus "strong" verbs. The latter nomenclature refers to a style preference (or irrational prejudice) against constructions that rely heavily (or at all) on verbs such as be, have, and do. Andrea Lunsford, The St. Martin's Handbook, fifth edition (2002) offers a typical criticism of "weak verbs":

The greatest writers in any language are those with a genius for choosing the precise words that will arrest and hold the reader's attention. In your own writing, you can help gain this attention by using precise nouns and adjectives instead of vague, empty ones [cross-reference omitted]. Perhaps even more important, however, you can use strong, precise verbs instead of weak, catchall verbs and instead of nouns.


Some of the most common verbs in English—especially be, do, and have—carry little or no sense of specific action, but many writers tend to overuse them in situations where more precise verbs would be clearer and more effective.

The "is having" wording that your professor specifically calls out would fall into Lunsford's "weak verb" category because it is built on a form of "have"; but your professor might well be under the impression that the "is [verb]ing" form—not the "have" element—is the chief indicator of weakness/passivity in the construction. It can be difficult for an outside observer to tell what rationale a person has used to reach a erroneous conclusion.

Of course, regardless of the terminology that your professor uses, you'll still have to go into contortions to avoid using "is [verb]ing" verb forms if you want to receive high marks on the papers you write for this class. But at least you won't use "passive construction" or "passive voice" incorrectly, as so many others do.

  • There's the reverse problem. "I will now bathe" will mark you as weird whereas "I'm going to have a bath now" will be totally unremarkable (the style, not necessarily the impartation). Apr 13 at 15:31
  • 1
    Nitpick: it's not really about the order that the action and the object it's applied to appear in the sentence, though that will be true in many cases - it's about whether the the object the action is applied to is (grammatically speaking) the subject of the sentence. In many cases the order will be as you describe, but (for example) in the sentence "I liked the food that you cooked", the object ("the food/that") precedes the verb ("cooked") but there is no passive in the sentence.
    – psmears
    Apr 13 at 16:06

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