Teachers love to tell students to use the active voice because it tends to make sentences shorter, clearer, and more impactful. But is it really a crime to write in the passive voice? Absolutely not. In many cases, the passive voice is actually preferable to the active voice. However, it does present many dangers that could make our writing wordy or unclear. Let’s define the active and passive voices, then discuss some potential problems with passive writing.
Examples of Active and Passive VoicesWhether a sentence is active or passive depends on the relationship between the verb and the subject. In the active voice, a subject performs a verb. For example:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 38,387 points in his career.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (subject) scored (verb) 38,387 points (object).
In the passive voice, the subject is switched, so the object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence.
38,387 points were scored by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his career.Unlike the subject in the active voice, the subject in the passive voice does nothing. In other words, the subject, points, takes no action. Instead, the points are acted upon.
Another example of an active sentence:
My parents bought groceries for my sister’s birthday party.The subject of the sentence, the parents, performs the action of buying groceries. The parents are the focus of the sentence.
However, in the passive voice, the subject is switched, so the object of the active sentence becomes the subject in the passive.
Groceries were bought by my parents for my sister’s birthday party.The subject, or focus, of the sentence takes no action. Instead, the groceries are acted upon by the parents.
Problems with Passive Voice
A passive voice can create confusion; it often disrupts rhythm and makes a sentence harder to understand. In many cases, verbs and subjects become vague or ambiguous.
Evidence was presented to support the idea that homelessness is experienced by more than 600,000 people.A couple questions: Who is presenting this evidence? And how is the number of homeless people an idea? Also, because the subject, the evidence, doesn’t perform any action, the sentence is inherently confusing.
Let’s clarify this sentence with a few simple fixes:
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the number of homeless people at 600,000.Here, the U.S. Census Bureau becomes the subject who drives the estimation of the number of homeless people. The focus of the sentence has shifted, creating a simple, straightforward structure. Another example:
A talk was given by the college professor; she cited a paper that said homelessness went down last year.Again, the subject of the sentence, the “talk,” doesn’t do anything. Here, the passive voice creates a clunky break that requires a semicolon to keep the sentence grammatically correct. The subject of the first part of the sentence is the “talk,” but the talk doesn’t cite the paper, the professor does. See how confusing the subject can become in a passive sentence?
The college professor cited a paper stating homelessness decreased last year.By changing the subject of the sentence to the doer of the action (the college professor), we get a simple, easy to read statement.
How to Identify the Passive Voice
The easiest way to identify the passive voice is to look for the following in any sentence:
passive voice = form of “to be” + past participle (verb)A past participle is a verb that takes the past tense form. Look for it in conjunction with a form of “to be,” which usually includes words like is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, and being. Also, look for the need to attribute the perceived doer of action with the word “by.”
When the car was driven by the racer, he sped out of control and hit the guardrail.
Remember, we want our writing to be clear. So when we talk about passive versus active voices, keep in mind that either voice can work, depending on the situation. Here are a few occasions where the passive voice may be preferable to the active voice:
- When the agent is more important than the subject. Take the example: “My car was hit.” We want to focus on the car itself, since we care more about the car being damaged than we do about who damaged the car.
- When the agent of action is a secret or an authoritative figure. Take common disclaimers like “Trespassers will be prosecuted,” or “Access is denied.”
- When we want variety in our writing. Any kind of writing, no matter how active, tends to grow dull after awhile. Sentence rhythm and structure will feel stilted and repetitive, especially when each sentence is focused only on the drivers of action.
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