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The interaction between the subject and verb of a sentence determines voice. Put another way, to figure out voice in a sentence, ask yourself “does the subject of the sentence perform the action or receive it?” If the subject performs the action, the sentence is active; if the subject receives, then the sentence is passive.
In an active-voice sentence, the subject of the verb is performing an action:
Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale.
The researcher asks the subjects twenty simple questions.
A black car has hit my dog.
You should use active voice when you wish to emphasize the doer of the action.
In a passive-voice sentence, the subject of the verb is receiving an action:
The Handmaid’s Tale was written by Margaret Atwood.
The subjects are asked twenty simple questions.
My dog has been hit by a black car.
You should use passive voice when you wish to emphasize the receiver of the action.
When to use the passive voice
Passive voice is frequently preferred in the sciences, where the identity of the researcher or experimenter takes a back seat to the process of experimentation.
The liquids were combined together and the resulting mixture was cooled. (passive)
My lab partner and I combined the liquids and then cooled the resulting mixture. (active)
In this context, writing in the active voice clutters the sentence with unnecessary information (“my lab partner and I”). Passive voice allows the writer to focus on the results of the experiment. Here, a passive construction is more succinct.
Passive voice is also preferable when the doer of the action is not important: for example, “New York City is called the Big Apple.” In this case, the sentence focuses on the nickname, not on the person or people using it. Again, for this statement, passive is better.
When to avoid the passive voice
While passive voice does have its place, many writers use it improperly, making their writing vague, wordy, or ambiguous.
For example, say it’s Monday morning, and you are telling stories from the weekend over email. To describe your Saturday night dinner engagement, which of the following statements would you use?
I ate dinner with the Governor-General.
A dinner was eaten by the Governor-General and me.
Most people would probably use the first statement, which is written in the active voice. In the second response, the action is the same (The GG and I ate dinner) but when expressed in the passive voice, the sentence is wordy, abstract, and potentially confusing. In academic writing, many students fall into a habit of using passive voice indiscriminately, thinking that this approach will make their writing appear more formal. Oftentimes, however, an active construction is stronger, clearer, or more precise.
Consider the following examples. In each case, an active construction would clarify the point expressed.
- A motion was made to impeach the chairman.
Who made this motion? It sounds as if the writer is trying to hide the identity of that person. Instead be direct: Councilor Fitzwinkle moved to impeach the chairman.
- Imagery of the sea is used by the poet.
This statement is wordy. The poet uses sea imagery is more concise and emphasizes the poet’s deliberate choice of images.
- In the dining room, shirts must be worn.
How worn do they have to be? The statement is ambiguous. Patrons must wear shirts in the dining room is clearer and more emphatic.
One final note: Passive voice has nothing to do with tense. A passive sentence can be written in the past, present, or future tense. What matters is whether the subject of the sentence is doing something or having something done to it. Also, not all verbs made up of “to be + main verb” are passive: “I am writing a novel” is an active sentence, since “I” am performing the act of writing.