Active Vs. Passive Voice

Active vs. Passive Voice

What are active and passive voice? How can you tell them apart? When should you use each one?

Active and passive voice are two different styles of constructing a sentence. Each is set up in a different way and should be used (or avoided) in certain cases.

The basic construction of a sentence in English is subject (noun) + action (verb) + object (noun). Normally, the subject acts on the object. See the example below.

Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812.

Here, the subject (“Napoleon”) makes an action (“invaded”) on something, the object (“Russia”). This sentences is written in active voice. The subject is the agent (in bold), the noun causing or doing the action.

subject          +          verb          +          object
                 Napoleon       +       invaded       +          Russia                  

Active voice is simple and will be used in the majority of cases. It is clear and definitive.

Passive voice is an alternate construction where the agent is not the subject, but the object; see below.

Russia was invaded by Napoleon in 1812.

This is passive voice, which has a subject (“Russia”) acted upon (“was invaded”) by the object (“Napoleon”). The agent is still the thing making the action, but is now the object.

 subject       +        connector and verb        +        object    
    Russia       +             was invaded by            +     Napoleon  

Passive voice requires a connecting verb (or auxiliary verb) due to movement of the agent. The most common connector is a form of “to be” (“is, was,” etc.).

Active voice features one item acting on another, thus the first item–the agent–is “active.” Passive voice, on the other hand, has one item being acting upon by another; the first item is not acting and is thus “passive” (since the agent is the object).

Because of its structure and the connectors, passive construction separates the agent from what it is acting on more than with active voice. In some cases, the agent can be omitted entirely.

Russia was invaded in 1812.

The above is still a complete sentence, and it is understood that someone or something invaded Russia, but the exact agent is unknown. This can be a benefit or a detractor depending upon the situation. It can be a benefit if you are trying hide the agent. However, in many cases this ambiguity can lead to confusion.

Should I Use Active or Passive Voice?

Both active and passive voice are grammatically correct. There is nothing ‘wrong’ about using one over the other. Depending upon the situation and topic, one form may be preferable. Note: active voice is the more common structure and should be used most often. Occasionally using passive can provide some sentence variety which will make your overall writing appear more polished. However, there are several things to keep in mind.

The first thing to always double check is the requirements of your department, teacher, course, and assignment. Different style guides provide different guidance on when the use of each voice is appropriate. Some subjects—most humanities, including History and English—will usually prefer active over passive voice. There are also individual professors and instructors who will require that your papers have no passive voice whatsoever. If that is the case, then follow the instructions you are given.

So I Should Never Use Passive Voice?

Passive voice should be used carefully. As mentioned above, passive structure can obscure or completely leave out the agent of the sentence, the thing that is acting. If you really need the emphasis to be on what is receiving the action, then passive may be the better choice. However, in most instances the subject should be clear. Much of the humanities tend to avoid away from passive voice because of this disconnect between who or what is acting and the result. Look at the example above: if you leave out Napoleon, then who invaded Russia?

On the other hand, some math and science writing will encourage the use of passive voice. (Again, consult your professor and syllabus for specifics). If you want to take focus off the agent, then you should use passive. This is sometimes the case in scientific and research papers, when you as the researcher is not what is important, but your experiments or procedure is the focus.

Next, I calculated the results and analyzed them for patterns.
Next, results were calculated and analyzed for patterns.

In this example, the removal of the actor (“I”) makes the sentence neater and moves focus away from the person and onto his or her work.

The other thing to be careful about with passive voice is to ensure that it does not make your sentences wordy or too complicated for no reason. Also make sure you do not overuse passive voice, as your text can become difficult to read and your point may become unclear.


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