Active and Passive Voice
At the heart of every good sentence is a strong, precise verb; the opposite is true as well–at the core of most confusing, awkward, or wordy sentences lies a weak verb.
Many beginning writers and most scientists use passive voice in their writing.
On the other hand, passive voice is used by beginning writers and scientists in their writing.
Both sentences above say the same thing, but the first sentence is clearer and more to the point. Why? Because the first sentence uses active voice, the subject, “writers and most scientists,” is doing the action, “use passive voice.” The second sentence is passive; the target of the action, “passive voice,” is moved to the subject position.
Active voice places the subject first, followed by the verb and object, as in
Joe loves Mary.
S V O
If the positions of subject and verb were reversed, the sentence would say
Mary was loved by Joe.
The subject of the sentence becomes Mary, but Mary isn’t really doing anything. Joe is doing all the work, and is placed last. Poor Joe.
Notice again the differences in the following active and passive sentences:
Active: Prof. Ford graded the essays.
S V O
Passive: The essays were graded by Prof. Ford.
Because passive voice sentences add words and change the normal doer-action-receiver of action, they make the reader work harder to understand the intended meaning. Passive constructions are by their very nature wordier than active constructions, which also can lead to confusion.
Converting Sentences to Active Voice
If you have a sentence with a “by” phrase, such as, “The boy was bitten by the dog,” rewrite the sentence so the subject comes first, followed by the verb:
The dog bit the boy.
If the subject of the sentence is not given, try using a noun or noun phrase for a more general term, such as “researchers,” or “the study,” or “experts in this field.”
On the other hand, if you wanted to change Whitney Houston’s classic song (and active voice title), I Will Always Love You, to passive voice, it would be You Will Always Be Loved By Me.
And that just sounds silly.
Uses for Passive Voice
Passive voice isn’t always a bad thing. Fiction writers often utilize passive voice. The writer of a murder mystery might want to show a scene of a homicide. He or she might write, “The bartender was murdered,” instead of “Somebody murdered the bartender.”
The difference is subtle, but in the passive sentence “The bartender was murdered,” the focus is on the bartender. In “Somebody murdered the bartender,” the focus would be on the unknown somebody. Passive voice can be a good tool if you want to create a sense of mystery in your sentence. However, when writing nonfiction, as in a narrative essay, you want your writing to be clear.
Another place you’ll find mostly passive voice construction is in scientific writing. The reason for this is that scientists are expected to sound objective, so they take themselves, the subject, out of their sentences: “The DNA was tested.” By whom? We don’t know, as the subject, or the person who tested the DNA, is not known. This vague language is expected in science writing, but lacks the clarity needed for most other writing purposes.
It’s important to remember that passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. In addition, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentences.