I am writing an article on Microsoft Word and it underlines all my passive voice sentences such as this one:

Our current electric grid was conceived more than one hundred years ago where energy needs were simple.

I don't understand why using the passive voice in such sentences is bad. What should I write instead?

  • 5
    Do not trust automatic grammar checkers. Microsoft Word always moans about passive voice, as is does about using which instead of that. – Mick Nov 16 '17 at 8:18

Mr C is right that there's no problem with the passive voice here; Ms A is right that there is a different problem with your example sentence and your 'where' should be 'when'.

That said, it's worth saying that the reason Microsoft Word always dings the passive voice is because English teachers generally ding the passive voice.

In the first five Google results for "passive voice", you've got Hamilton College's English Department sniping

The First Deadly Sin

Passive Voice...

[The] Passive voice produces a sentence in which the subject receives an action. In contrast, [the] active voice produces a sentence in which the subject performs an action. Passive voice often produces unclear, wordy sentences, whereas active voice produces generally clearer, more concise sentences. To change a sentence from passive to active voice, determine who or what performs the action, and use that person or thing as the subject of the sentence.

Also in the first five, you have Purdue University's English Department opining with bolded and underlined text

Active voice is used for most non-scientific writing. Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy. Even in scientific writing, too much use of passive voice can cloud the meaning of your sentences.

And it takes until you get to UNC's Writing Corner to read

1. Myth: Use of the passive voice constitutes a grammatical error.

Use of the passive voice is not a grammatical error. It’s a stylistic issue that pertains to clarity—that is, there are times when using the passive voice can prevent a reader from understanding what you mean...

4. Myth: You should never use the passive voice.

While the passive voice can weaken the clarity of your writing, there are times when the passive voice is OK and even preferable.

5. Myth: I can rely on my grammar checker to catch the passive voice.

See Myth #1. Since the passive voice isn’t a grammar error, it’s not always caught. Typically, grammar checkers catch only a fraction of passive voice usage.

Do any of these misunderstandings sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. That’s why we wrote this handout. It discusses how to recognize the passive voice, when you should avoid it, and when it’s OK.

So English teachers (a) generally learn at some point during their tertiary education that wordy Jamesian prose lost and manly terse Hemingway won and (b) quickly realize that the passive voice lets students reach their word counts much too quickly and (c) often fall back on blanket proscription instead of explaining when and how to use the passive voice for best effect.

In your [corrected] example,

Our current electric grid was conceived more than one hundred years ago when energy needs were simple.

the focus is on the grid itself, which is where it should be. Starting in on a subject

General Electric and its progeny and clones established the backbone of our current electric grid more than one hundred years ago, when energy needs were simple.

teaches us a little history but involves needless advertising and verbiage.

Old white men established our current electric grid more than one hundred years ago, when energy needs were simple.

meanwhile, has its own host of problems, if you weren't writing this for a women or cultural studies credit.

You don't have to just sit there and take misguided abuse from that paperclip, though. You can follow the instructions in this article in reverse and just tell the program to stop bothering you about the passive voice at all.

  • 1
    The Purdue article starts with the passive voice sentence "Active voice is used for most non-scientific writing.". Oh, the irony of it... – JavaLatte Jun 19 '18 at 9:16

Our current electric grid was conceived more than one hundred years ago where energy needs were simple

The passive voice is used correctly. There's nothing wrong with that sentence.

The only niggle that could bother readers is the “where” in the relative clause, changing it to when would clearly refer to time, i.e. “one hundred years ago” and not to a presupposed location.

Microsoft Word uses grammar check and spellcheck. Sometimes these tools are helpful in catching out typos, missing apostrophes, etc. Other times they are a nuisance, and should be switched off.

  • It's based on a pre-canned setting for the language locale you picked. You can disable enforcing active voice. – urnonav Jun 18 '18 at 17:08

Excessive use of passive voice can make text more difficult to read. The main situations where it's appropriate are:

  1. If you don't know, or don't want to say, who the subject/agent is

  2. If the object/patient is more important to the story than the subject/agent.

In your sentence, you maybe don't know who conceived the electric grid, and even if you did it's probably not important to the story. In this case, using passive voice is fine.

Referring to Michael Rybkin's comment, your usage of the word conceived is fine if you want to talk about the architecture or design of the grid rather than the actual construction. See meaning 2 in the Oxford dictionary.


Writing using the passive voice isn't bad, it just puts emphasis on another component of the sentence. For example:

The thief took Brett's wallet.

Here, a sentence in active voice, the emphasis is on the subject, or the doer of the action. In this case, the thief.

Brett's wallet was taken by the thief.

This sentence, in the passive voice, focuses on the object, the wallet itself.

Each one would be used in different contexts. For the above example, if I were writing a story about the thief, I would use the first form. If the story were from Brett's perspective and he was trying to find his lost wallet, I would use the second.

Word, and many other automatic spellcheckers complain about passive voice more as a reminder to double check you're using them properly than anything: used in the appropriate context, either passive or active voice is fine.

  • 1
    You've got it upside down. The emophasis is at the end of the sentence, not the beginning!!!!! – Araucaria Jun 14 '18 at 12:29
  • @Araucaria hmmm maybe emphasis is the wrong word. Focus or topic is probably more appropriate. – Azure Heights Jun 14 '18 at 14:26

Overuse of passive voice is a danger if it continually appears like you're trying to avoid mentioning or acknowledging a specific person or people by name.

Such uses of passive voice are often used to make it seem like "no one is at fault" when someone really is at fault, or to be passive-aggressive, or to try to be business-like.

Our current electric grid was conceived more than one hundred years ago where energy needs were simple.

This honestly is a perfect case for passive voice - we don't really care who conceived the electric grid, it wasn't a likely a single person but probably many people of an indefinite group, whom we can't exactly know without a lot of research anyway.

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