The University of Chicago Press,
Exercises from LEGAL WRITING IN PLAIN ENGLISH, Bryan A. Garner

§ 8. Prefer the active voice over the passive.



Edit the following sentences to eliminate the passive voice:

  • Testimony was heard from the plaintiff and from three witnesses on behalf of the corporation.
  • This is a purely legal question to be determined by the court.
  • McCormick's motion for partial summary judgment on the duty to defend should be denied.
  • Plaintiff's opposition violates Rule 313 of the California Rules of Court and may be disregarded by the court.


Count the passive-voice constructions in the following paragraphs. Decide which ones you would change to active voice. Change them.

  • The intention of the donor is established at the moment the funds are dedicated to a charitable cause. This dedication imposes a charitable trust for the donor's objective as effectively as if the assets had been accepted subject to an express limitation providing that the donation was to be held in trust by a trustee solely for the purpose for which it was given. It is imperative that the objectives of individuals who give to charity be strictly adhered to.
  • There are situations in which a motion for rehearing should be granted. Before the enactment of CPLR § 5517, it was held that when such a motion was granted, any appeals from the prior order would be dismissed. The CPLR was amended to "alter caselaw holding that an appeal from an order had to be dismissed upon entry in the court below of a subsequent order." [Citation.] Thus today, § 5517(a) states that after a notice of appeal from an order has been served, the original appeal will not be affected if a motion for rehearing is entertained. The appeal will be neither mooted nor canceled by the grant or denial of a motion for rehearing.
  • Jurisdiction was conferred on the district court by 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The complaint was dismissed with prejudice on March 31, 1999, and judgment was entered in favor of the Cauthorns. A timely notice of appeal was filed by Perkins on April 7, 1999. Jurisdiction is conferred on this court by 28 U.S.C. § 1291.
  • During the taxable years at issue, the replacement fuel assemblies had not begun to be used by the company for their specifically assigned function, namely, to generate electrical power through nuclear fission. Nor were the assemblies placed in a state of readiness for their intended use during the years in which they were acquired. That did not occur until the spring of 2000, when, after more than a year of careful planning, the reactor was shut down, various maintenance tasks were performed, spent fuel assemblies were removed, the reactor was reconfigured using the new fuel assemblies in conjunction with partially spent assemblies that were not replaced, and low power testing was performed to ensure that the reconfigured reactor core performed safely in accordance with specifications. Only after those procedures had been successfully completed did the replacement fuel assemblies generate salable electric power and, hence, income to taxpayer. Only at that point could the replacement fuel assemblies be considered to have been placed in service.


Find a published passage--two or three paragraphs--in which more than 50% of the verbs are in the passive voice. Retype it, providing the citation. Then, beneath the original, show your rewritten version.


In the literature on effective writing, find three authoritative discussions of the situations in which the passive voice can be preferable to the active. Consolidate what those authorities say. In how many situations is the passive voice better?

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© 2001, Bryan A. Garner

These exercises appear in Bryan A. Garner's Legal Writing in Plain English: A Text with Exercises, published by The University of Chicago Press and available at bookstores and on the Web at