Active v. Passive Voice – Which One to Use in Writing?


In the English language, we differentiate between active and passive voice in terms of the way in which a sentence is written. These two different voices will determine which word act as the subject. The active voice suggests that the subject performs the action, which is defined by the verb. In other words, the subject is active.

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When a sentence is written in the passive voice, the action is performed on the subject. This means the subject receives the action and is, therefore, passive.


For example:

Active: Mary planted two trees in the garden.

This sentence is written in the active voice because Mary, the subject, performs the action, planting, on the object, two trees.

We can rewrite the same sentence using the passive voice.

Passive: Two trees were planted by Mary in the garden.

Here Mary is no longer the subject. It is two trees that are the subject in the sentence, although they are not performing any action. Instead, the action is performed on them by Mary, which is what we call the passive voice.


More examples:

Active: My mom made this cake. => Passive: This cake was made by my mom.

Active: People pollute the planet. => Passive: The planet is polluted by people.

Active: Young people drive fast cars. => Passive: Fast cars are driven by young people.

 

The rule of thumb is the following: in writing, use the active voice whenever possible.

Passive voice, especially if used frequently, can make your sentences weaker because it gives an impression that very little action is happening. At the same time, texts with little action are less engaging from the reader's perspective. Furthermore, passive voice structures often contain more words and make your sentences unnecessarily long.

Nevertheless, there is a number of situations where the passive voice is desirable.


Emphasizing the Action

Sometimes, it is the action that needs to be emphasized, not the actor. Writers could be interested in telling what happened and no so much in explaining who did it. To put the focus on the action, use the passive voice. Such a structure also adds emphasis to what would otherwise be the object if the sentence was written in the active voice.


For example:

Active: After a long meeting, the board passed new regulations.

If we wish to emphasize the passing of new regulations (the object) occurred, we should use the passive voice.

Passive: After a long meeting, new regulations were passed by the board.


More examples:

Active: The Romans built the Colosseum. => Passive: Colosseum was built by the Romans.

Active: The participants met the conditions of the offer. => Passive: The conditions of the offer were met by the participants.


The Actor Remains Unnamed

Sometimes, we write about things that do not have specific actors or we cannot exactly tell who the actor is. Whether it is for the purposes making an argument about the action and not the subject or in order not to reveal some information about the actor, we can use the passive voice comfortably to avoid naming the actor.


For example:

The information about the new customers was not added to our database.

We strip this sentence of any actively acting subject to conceal who the person who did not add the information is or to show that it is not important who did it but that it was done.

That said, the passive voice appears in documents where the actor is not known, such as crime reports.


For example:

The bank was robbed.

A theft was committed.

On that note, it is also wise to use the passive voice when we want to describe a condition in which it is much more important what the object on which the action is performed is. These cases include different phenomena that occur in the world, such as diseases, natural catastrophes, etc.


For example:

This year, more than 100 people in the city were diagnosed with pneumonia.

New Orleans was severely damaged by a hurricane.

We can also use the passive voice to avoid naming the actor where we talk about general trends and not what a specific person or group of people do.


For example:

It is believed that dogs are among the most intelligent animals.

By using the passive voice, we avoid naming who exactly believes that dogs are among the most intelligent animals either because we do not the exact number of people who do or we wish to stress that this action is a general belief among people.

If we want to rewrite our sentence using the active voice, we can add a general, imaginary active subject such as researchers, scholars, people, etc.

Many people believe that dogs are among the most intelligent animals.

Researchers have shown that dogs are among the most intelligent animals.



Writing In an Authoritative Tone

The passive voice becomes useful when we want to write in an authoritative tone. In other words, we can use the passive voice to sound sure, confident, and powerful, especially about rules and regulations that need to be followed. Through the passive voice, we avoid mentioning any actors – including ourselves – which gives certain phrases a sense of authority.


For example, we could say:

The clinic prohibits visits after 5 o'clock.

This sentence is not grammatically incorrect. However, if we wish to emphasize the action – prohibition of visits – rather than the actor to make the sentence sound more like an obligation imposed by an authority, then we can consider rewriting it in the passive voice.


For example:

Visits are prohibited after 5 o'clock.

By omitting to say who the actor (the clinic) is, we turn this phrase into a sort of a rule or law. This significantly adds to the overall authoritative tone.


More examples:

Social gatherings are not allowed in the common room.

Bringing food and drinks to the cinema is strictly forbidden.


Creating a Sense of Objectivity

Certain types of writing may require more frequent use of the passive voice. More precisely, writing in the passive voice is encouraged in academic and scientific writing to create a sense of objectivity. This means that it is not always useful to focus on own actions and opinions but instead present something as neutrally as possible.


For example, instead of saying:

Active: We believe that there is a need for a stronger system of social services in the city.


We could say:

Passive: A stronger system of social services is needed in the city.


More examples:

I originally conducted the study in 2011. => The study was originally conducted in 2011.

We interviewed 300 participants over the course of one month. => 300 participants were interviewed over the course of one month.


Transitive Verbs

Needless to say, not every sentence can be equally written in active and passive voice. The passive voice is used with transitive verbs, those that can take an object. In other words, transitive verbs are those verbs which can be followed by a noun or a pronoun.


For example:

We cooked a three-course meal for our family. => A three-course meal was cooked.

Jenny wrote a short story. => A short story was written.

Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, are those that cannot take an object.


For example:

The event will happen next week.

We will be arriving late.

As such, they cannot be written using passive voice.


Final tip: how can you spot the passive voice in your writing?

If you feel like you might be overusing the passive voice where it is not desired and want to edit your text to make it more direct and engaging using the active voice, it would be best to look for some keywords used in sentences written in the passive voice.

These are:

  • by
  • was/were
  • is/are
  • had
  • been

These words are integral in most passive voice structures, so identifying them will make it easier to rewrite your passive voice sentences using the active voice.

In conclusion, certain situations welcome the passive voice more than the active voice. You can use the passive voice when:

  • You want to emphasize the action, not the actor.
  • The actor is unnamed or you want them to stay unnamed.
  • You want to write in the authoritative tone.
  • You to achieve objectivity in your text.
In other cases, you should try to write in the active voice as much as possible to make your sentences shorter, and therefore, write concise and clear texts. When written in the active voice, verbs become more engaging, vivid, and direct, making your readers' experience more enjoyable.

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