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 first-person “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.
Read the following sentences. Are they using the passive effectively? Or should they be rewritten as active sentences?
- The machine was reset at 10:23, 11:12, and 11:56 last night.
- Maren was hit by several branches as she slid down the hill.
- The final steps, which need to be finished before the sun sets over the mountains, are going to be completed by Kajuana.
- Yes. In this case, we don’t know who accomplished the action. If this sentence appeared in an academic article, it may be even more appropriate, as that style often demands the actor be left out of the sentence. However, if it is important to know who completed the action, then the active voice may be more appropriate.
- Yes. Since the subject of this sentence—several branches—can’t actually do anything, it’s best to put the emphasis on Maren, the person the actions were done to.
- No. This would be better in the active voice. There are a lot of different parts to the sentence, and by converting the sentence to the active voice, they come in a more logical order that is easier to understand:
- Kajuana is going to complete the final steps, which need to be finished before the sun sets over the mountains.
Using the Passive
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.