The Active and Passive Voice (And When to Use Them)

Active and Passive Voice

There’s no need to feel embarrassed if you’re confused by the active and passive voice. Even the authors of The Elements of Style managed to get it wrong in their widely-read guide.

But knowing how to use the active and passive voice in academic writing is essential for clarity, so we’re going to do our best to settle this tricky grammatical issue once and for all!

Subjects, Verbs and Objects

The first thing you need to know is how a sentence goes together. The basic parts of a sentence are the subject and verb, but the passive voice only applies to transitive verbs (i.e. verbs which take an object).

To put together a sentence with a transitive verb, we need a subject acting upon an object:

Subject

Verb

Object

Genghis Khan…

…conquered…

…the known world.

Here, ‘Genghis Khan’ is the subject (performing the action), ‘conquered’ is the verb (the action being performed) and ‘the known world’ is the object (the thing being acted upon).

Genghis Khan, looking pretty chilled for a world conqueror.

But what does this have to do with the active and passive voice?

Active and Passive Voice Sentences

The sentence ‘Genghis Khan conquered the known world’ is an example of the active voice because a subject acts upon an object. Most sentences are like this.

To make a passive sentence, we make the object the subject of the sentence so that it foregrounds the thing being acted upon. The previous subject then becomes a prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence:

Subject

Verb

Prepositional Phrase

The known world…

…was conquered…

…by Genghis Khan.

The passive voice even allows us to omit the subject of a sentence altogether sometimes:

Subject

Verb

The known world…

…was conquered.

This is much more mysterious, as (in this case) we don’t know who did the conquering. We can also use the passive voice to distance ourselves from our actions, like when politicians say, ‘Mistakes were made.

By whom were these mistakes made? A passive sentence leaves this unanswered, which is handy if you were responsible for the mistakes in question!

Active or Passive Voice?

When should you use the active and passive voices in your work? Both have their place, although opinion is divided on which is best in many situations (so check your style guide).

Many institutions, especially in the sciences, discourage using the active voice on the basis that it makes writing too personal, whereas the passive voice lends a sense of objectivity.

The idea here is that using first-person pronouns (‘I’ or ‘we’) in academic writing draws focus away from the subject matter. We can therefore use the passive voice to remove subjectivity when describing a methodology:

Active Sentence: I sent the surveys to the participants.

Passive Sentence: The surveys were sent to the participants.

Most of the time, however, using the active voice is clearer and more concise. Nor do you need to use the passive voice to remove the first person from your writing. For instance, if we take the active, first-person sentence:

I believe the results support the hypothesis.

We could change it to the passive voice as follows:

The hypothesis was supported by the results.

But it would be much simpler to keep the active voice and use ‘the results’ as the subject of the sentence. For example:

The results support the hypothesis.

This way, you keep the clarity of using the active voice while also achieving the impersonal objectivity for which the passive voice is often used. As such, while the passive voice is useful, it’s worth trying the active voice first.

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