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When to use passive voice: 8 tactics of professional writers

If your passive voice sentence does not fall into any of these eight tactics, change your sentence to active

Using the in vehicle computer.JPG

There are eight tactics you need to keep in mind when writing in the passive.


This article is part of a series, Report Writing for a New Generation: Merging Technology with Traditional Techniques, which covers general police report writing skills along with plain English instruction, professional and technical writing best practices, and how technology is changing the way officers write.

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In the article, “Your English teacher was right: active voice is better than passive voice,” we focused on using active voice over passive voice. Active voice makes your writing clear, makes your sentences stronger, helps avoid confusion, and reduces civil liability, which is why professional writers prefer the active voice.

But the passive voice, if used correctly, can influence your reader even more than the active voice. Using passive voice intentionally and with thought can help guide the reader exactly where you want them to go.

There are eight tactics you need to keep in mind when writing in the passive. If your passive voice sentence does not fall into any of these eight tactics, change your sentence to active.

Tactic 1: You don’t know who did what

Passive: Jamie was punched in the face by an unknown male who ran northbound on Main Street.

Active: An unknown male punched Jamie in the face then ran northbound on Main Street.

The active voice makes this sentence more confusing because Jaime is closer to the word “ran.” The passive version of this sentence emphasizes that Jamie was punched, not the fact that the unknown make ran away.

Tactic 2: You don’t want to embarrass a person for something they have done

Passive: Sergeant Lee’s departmental work phone was lost, and he could not find it.

Active: Sergeant Lee lost his departmental work phone, and he could not find it.

Tactic 2 is the most used tactic in government writing and was one of the reasons why some agencies switched to third person writing in police reports. (Do not write in the third person. More to come in a later article).

Using passive voice hides the subject of the sentence. Who lost the phone? It is unclear. But with an active voice sentence, it points a finger directly at the subject.

And yes, I did lose my phone.

Tactic 3: Hiding someone’s identity, aka. truncated passive

Passive: Information was given to Officer Anderson that two adult males were in the apartment packaging methamphetamine.

Active: Jake, the neighbor, told Officer Anderson that two adult males were in the apartment packaging methamphetamine.

Tactic 3 is used for confidential informants, sources of information and sensitive crimes like sex crimes. Passive voice shifts the focus off the supplier of information to the object of the sentence. If you use active voice intentionally, you could accidentally expose your source of information.

If you are feeling confident in your writing, then use the truncated active voice instead of the normal passive voice.

Truncated Active: Officer Anderson received information that two adult males were in the apartment packaging methamphetamine.

The truncated passive phrase, received information, hides the source of information but puts the emphasis on the doer, Officer Anderson.

Tactic 4: To emphasize the act committed against the victim

Passive: Jake was struck with the blunt chain, causing a deep laceration to his face.

Active: The defendant struck Jake with a blunt chain, causing a deep laceration to his face.

Sometimes you want to emphasize the victim, not the suspect. Using passive voice sentence structure is one of the easiest ways to flip the reader’s attention away from the suspect and back on the victim. Tactic 4 is heavily used in court-charging documents.

The passive voice example above emphasizes the blunt chain causing a deep laceration. The terms blunt chain and causing a deep laceration are written close to each other.

If you want to make Tactic 4 stronger, use one passive voice sentence followed by an immediate active voice sentence.

Passive: Jake was struck with the blunt chain, causing a deep laceration to his face. Followed by:

Active: The defendant said he purposely struck Jake in the face with the chain because Jake cheated on him with another roommate.

Use passive voice to emphasize action/injury, then follow up with active voice to emphasize suspect.

Tactic 5: When you wish to emphasize a subject’s passivity, victimization, or injury

Passive: Kelly’s forehead was split open because Aubrey threw the book at her face.

Active: Aubrey threw the book at Kelly’s forehead, causing it to split open.

Active: The book split Kelly’s forehead after Aubrey threw it at her.

Tactic 5 is like Tactic 4 but is used to help clarify who the victim is.

In the passive voice example, the reader’s mind goes to Kelly’s forehead splitting open, while the active voice example emphasizes Aubrey the perpetrator, not the victim’s injuries.

The last active voice example emphasizes the book, not Aubrey or Kelly. If the book broke because it hit Kelly’s forehead, the second example would be a better choice.

Tactic 6: Nobody cares who was responsible or that information does not matter

Passive: A new barricade will be set up on Main St. and Broadway.

Active: John, Sally, and Frank from city streets will set up barricades on Main. St and Broadway.

Some information is better left out of a police report. Is identifying the workers that placed the barricades important – probably not.

Tactic 7: What you’re saying is always true regardless of who or what does it

Passive: Police department vehicles were made to be visible to the community.

Active: The police department made its vehicles to be visible to the community.

The active voice example changes the meaning of the sentence. Be careful not to purposely change your sentence to active or passive if it alters the meaning of what you are trying to write.

Tactic 8: What you are writing is scientific or research-based and requires passive voice

Passive: 1000 officers from around the country were surveyed about police morale.

Active: I surveyed 50 officers from Phoenix, 20 from San Francisco, 100 from New York…about police morale.

Using passive voice in a scientific context is more generalized but a lot clearer and straightforward. If you want to generalize a topic, passive voice works great.

Active voice is almost always better for most police writing. But never neglect the power of using passive voice. If your passive voice sentence falls under any of these eight tactics, you do not need to change it.

Remember, report writing should not be hard. But just like anything we do in law enforcement, practice is key to make writing easier. Pick a few of these topics outlined in this article and try to apply them to your next report. Once you feel comfortable with one topic, move on to the next. Then rinse, lather, repeat.

The history of passive voice in police reports

Police officers have been writing in passive voice since the early 1940s as you can see in this example:

Report writing example.jpg

Many officers were taught that writing in passive voice showed impartiality and was a better form of writing. By the 1960s, most police report writing textbooks encouraged police to use passive voice writing, and some agencies even mandated it. The overuse of passive voice quickly spread to Supreme Court (The Warren Court), who preferred passive overactive.

It was not until the 1990s when police report writing textbooks shifted away from passive voice to active voice.

But to make matters worse, and why police agencies still have issues with officers writing in passive voice, is because the Supreme Court still prefers to use passive voice over the active voice. The Supreme Court, however, wants to avoid pointing out who must do what to who leaving those decisions up to the lower courts to decide later.

Many Justices have criticized the courts for their use of passive voice because passive voice easily leads to confusion. [1] For example: “The application for injunctive relieve presented to Justice Alito and by him referred to the Court is denied.” [2] The courts offered no other comment and did not publish any dissents making this triple-passive statement that much harder to interpret. Who presented? Who referred? Who denied?


1. Skinner D, Pludwin S. (2013). Unsought Responsibility: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Politics of Passive Writing. Polity, 45(4), 499–524.

2. United States Supreme Court. Kelly, Mike, et al. v. Pennsylvania, et. Al. (Dec. 08, 2020).

NEXT: Your English teacher was right: Active voice is better than passive voice

Joshua Lee is an active-duty police sergeant for a municipal police department in Arizona. Before being promoted, Joshua served five years as a patrol officer and six years as a detective with the Organized Crime Section investigating civil asset forfeiture, white-collar financial crime, and cryptocurrency crimes.

Joshua is a money laundering investigations expert witness and consultant for banks, financial institutions, and accountants. He is also an artificial intelligence for government applications advisor and researcher.

Joshua holds a BA in Justice Studies, an MA in Legal Studies, and an MA in Professional Writing. He has earned some of law enforcement’s top certifications, including the ACFE’s Certified Fraud Examiners (CFE), ACAMS Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist (CAMS) and the IAFC’s Certified Cyber Crimes Investigator (CCCI).

Joshua is an adjunct professor at a large national university, and a smaller regional college teaching law, criminal justice, government, technology, writing and English courses.