Skills to Develop
- Identify active voice
- Identify passive voice
Voice is a nebulous term in writing. It can refer to the general “feel” of the writing, or it can be used in a more technical sense. In this course, we will focus on the latter sense as we discuss active and passive voice.
Teachers can get fired up about voice in writing. You may have had a frustrated (and frustrating?) professor write on your paper “Use passive voice!” or “Avoid passive voice!” during your studies. Most automated grammar checkers will be happy to flag and condemn all passive sentences for you. Further, your English textbook might suggest that the active sentence “Jack hit the baseball” is better than the passive sentence “The baseball was hit by Jack.” As well-intentioned as they might be, these tidbits of advice don’t help much, do they? You are not likely to have anyone named Jack hitting any baseballs in your papers, and obviously both passive and active voice are powerful tools in the right hands.
In this section, we will examine both the active voice and the passive voice, and we will determine just when to use each.
Active and Passive Voice
There are two main “voices” in English writing: the active voice and the passive voice. You’ve probably heard a lot about them—and you’ve probably been warned away from the passive voice. But what exactly are they?
In the simplest terms, an active voice sentence is written in the form of “A does B.” (For example, “Carmen sings the song.”) A passive voice sentence is written in the form of “B is done by A.” (For example, “The song is sung by Carmen.”) Both constructions are grammatically sound and correct.
Let’s look at a couple more examples of the passive voice:
- I’ve been hit! (or, I have been hit!)
- Jasper was thrown from the car when it was struck from behind.
You may have noticed something unique about the previous two sentences: the subject of the sentence is not the person (or thing) performing the action. The passive voice “hides” who does the action. Despite these sentences being completely grammatically sound, we don’t know who hit “me” or what struck the car.
The passive is created using the verb to be (e.g., the song is sung; it was struck from behind). Remember that to be conjugates irregularly. Its forms include am, are, is, was, were, and will be, which we learned about earlier in the course.
To be also has more complex forms like had been, is being, and was being.
- Mirella is being pulled away from everything she loves.
- Pietro had been pushed; I knew it.
- Unfortunately, my car was being towed away by the time I got to it.
Because to be has other uses than just creating the passive voice, we need to be careful when we identify passive sentences. It’s easy to mistake a sentence like “She was falling.” or “He is short.” for a passive sentence. However, in “She was falling,” was simply indicates that the sentence takes place in the past. In “He is short,” is is a linking verb. If there is no “real” action taking place, is is simply acting as a linking verb.
There are two key features that will help you identify a passive sentence:
- Something is happening (the sentence has a verb that is not a linking verb).
- The subject of the sentence is not doing that thing.
As you read at the two sentences below, think about the how the different voice may affect the meaning or implications of the sentence:
- Passive voice: The rate of evaporation is controlled by the size of an opening.
- Active voice: The size of an opening controls the rate of evaporation.
The passive choice slightly emphasizes “the rate of evaporation,” while the active choice emphasizes “the size of an opening.” Simple. So why all the fuss? Because passive constructions can produce grammatically tangled sentences such as this:
Groundwater flow is influenced by zones of fracture concentration, as can be recognized by the two model simulations (see Figures 1 and 2), by which one can see . . .
The sentence is becoming a burden for the reader, and probably for the writer too. As often happens, the passive voice here has smothered potential verbs and kicked off a runaway train of prepositions. But the reader’s task gets much easier in the revised version below:
Two model simulations (Figures 1 and 2) illustrate how zones of fracture concentration influence groundwater flow. These simulations show . . .
To revise the above, all I did was look for the two buried things (simulations and zones) in the original version that could actually do something, and I made the sentence clearly about these two nouns by placing them in front of active verbs. This is the general principle to follow as you compose in the active voice: Place concrete nouns that can perform work in front of active verbs.
Are the following sentences in the active or passive voice?
- Jayden drank more sodas than anyone else at the party.
- The samples were prepared in a clean room before being sent out for further examination.
- Karen was dancing with Joshua when she suddenly realized she needed to leave.
- Carlos was a very serious scientist with unique interests.
- When I returned to my room, my luggage had been stolen.
- This sentence uses the active voice. Jayden does the action (drank) to the object (more sodas). If this sentence were written in the passive it would read “More sodas were drunk by Jayden than by anyone else at the party.”
- This sentence uses the passive voice. The action (prepared) was done to the subject of the sentence (samples). If this sentence were written in the active it would be something like this: “[Actor] prepared the samples in a clean room before sending them out for further examination.” Since we do not know who prepared the samples, the active sentence is incomplete.
- This sentence uses the active voice. In this case was indicates that the sentence happened in the past; it does not indicate the passive voice in this instance.
- This sentence uses the active voice. In this case was is acting as a linking verb. It links Carlos with the phrase very serious scientist.
- The introductory phrase to the sentence (When I returned to my room) is in the active voice. The second phrase (my luggage had been stolen) uses the passive voice.
Revise Weak Passive-Voice Sentences
As we’ve mentioned, the passive voice can be a shifty operator—it can cover up its source, that is, who’s doing the acting, as this example shows:
- Passive: The papers will be graded according to the criteria stated in the syllabus.
- Graded by whom though?
- Active: The teacher will grade the papers according to the criteria stated in the syllabus.
It’s this ability to cover the actor or agent of the sentence that makes the passive voice a favorite of people in authority—policemen, city officials, and, yes, teachers. At any rate, you can see how the passive voice can cause wordiness, indirectness, and comprehension problems.
|Your figures have been reanalyzed in order to determine the coefficient of error. The results will be announced when the situation is judged appropriate.||Who analyzes, and who will announce?||We have reanalyzed your figures in order to determine the range of error. We will announce the results when the time is right.|
|With the price of housing at such inflated levels, those loans cannot be paid off in any shorter period of time.||Who can’t pay the loans off?||With the price of housing at such inflated levels, homeowners cannot pay off those loans in any shorter period of time.|
|After the arm of the hand-held stapler is pushed down, the blade from the magazine is raised by the top-leaf spring, and the magazine and base.||Who pushes it down, and who or what raises it?||After you push down on the arm of the hand-held stapler, the top-leaf spring raises the blade from the magazine, and the magazine and base move apart.|
|However, market share is being lost by 5.25-inch diskettes as is shown in the graph in Figure 2.||Who or what is losing market share, who or what shows it?||However, 5.25-inch diskettes are losing market share as the graph in Figure 2 shows.|
|For many years, federal regulations concerning the use of wire-tapping have been ignored. Only recently havetighter restrictions been imposed on the circumstances that warrant it.||Who has ignored the regulations, and who is now imposing them?||For many years, government officials have ignored federal regulations concerning the use of wire-tapping. Only recently has the federal government imposed tighter restrictions on the circumstances that warrant it.|
Don’t get the idea that the passive voice is always wrong and should never be used. It is a good writing technique when we don’t want to be bothered with an obvious or too-often-repeated subject and when we need to rearrange words in a sentence for emphasis. Notice that the passive voice is really all right in some of the examples above. The next section will focus more on how and why to use the passive voice.
Using the Passive Voice
There are several different situations where the passive voice is more useful than the active voice.
- When you don’t know who did the action: The paper had been moved.
- The active voice would be something like this: “Someone had moved the paper.” While this sentence is technically fine, the passive voice sentence has a more subtle element of mystery, which can be especially helpful in creating a mood in fiction.
- When you want to hide who did the action: The window had been broken.
- The sentence is either hiding who broke the window or they do not know. Again, the sentence can be reformed to say “Someone had broken the window,” but using the word someone clearly indicates that someone (though we may not know who) is at fault here. Using the passive puts the focus on the window rather than on the person who broke it, as he or she is completely left out of the sentence.
- When you want to emphasize the person or thing the action was done to: Caroline was hurt when Kent broke up with her.
- We automatically focus on the subject of the sentence. If the sentence were to say “Kent hurt Caroline when he broke up with her,” then our focus would be drawn to Kent rather than Caroline.
- A subject that can’t actually do anything: Caroline was hurt when she fell into the trees.
- While the trees hurt Caroline, they didn’t actually do anything. Thus, it makes more sense to have Caroline as the subject rather than saying “The trees hurt Caroline when she fell into them.”
It’s often against convention in scholarly writing to use I. While this may seem like a forced rule, it also stems from the fact that scholars want to emphasize the science or research as opposed to the author of the paper. This often results in the passive voice being the best choice.
Using the Passive Most Effectively
Now that we know there are some instances where passive voice is the best choice, how do we use the passive voice to it fullest? The answer lies in writing direct sentences—in passive voice—that have simple subjects and verbs. Compare the two sentences below:
- Photomicrographs were taken to facilitate easy comparison of the samples.
- Easy comparison of the samples was facilitated by the taking of photomicrographs.
Both sentences are written in the passive voice, but for most ears the first sentence is more direct and understandable, and therefore preferable. Depending on the context, it does a clearer job of telling us what was done and why it was done. Especially if this sentence appears in the “Experimental” section of a report (and thus readers already know that the authors of the report took the photomicrographs), the first sentence neatly represents what the authors actually did—took photomicrographs—and why they did it—to facilitate easy comparison.