Doctors stress the fact that staying active is a key strategy for maintaining good health. Did you know this tip applies not only to your health, but to essay writing too?
While you could certainly stay active by doing a few extra push-ups, that’s not exactly what I mean by staying active. In this case, staying active doesn’t refer to exercise. It means writing in active voice.
I’m sure you’ve heard the terms active voice and passive voice and have probably even heard that you should usually write in active voice (and avoid passive voice).
But what does that mean? And why should you even care? Let me explain.
Here are three things you need to know about passive voice in order to write a better essay.
What the Heck Are Active and Passive Voice, Anyway?
When you write in active voice, the subject is doing something. When you write in passive voice, the object of the sentence (what is being acted upon) becomes the subject.
Yeah, I know. Confusing. That’s why lots of people aren’t big fans of grammar.
Here’s an example to help clarify.
Active voice: Liam bought a new cell phone.
Here, “Liam” is the subject. He is the person doing something in the sentence (buying a new cell phone). “A new cell phone” is the object and is having something being done to it (the cell phone is being purchased).
Passive voice: A new cell phone was bought by Liam.
Here, the object, “a new cell phone,” has become the subject. Writing in passive voice makes this sentence awkward, and it’s easy to see why writing in active voice is generally preferred.
If this still doesn’t completely clarify the issue, check out this blog post on how to avoid writing in passive voice.
Now that you have a better sense of what passive and active voice are, let’s move on to those things you need to know in order to write a better essay.
Passive Voice: 3 Things You Need to Know for a Better Essay
You don’t always have to avoid passive voice. It has its place (more about that later), but it is important that you understand how and where you should (or shouldn’t) use it.
Let’s look at three important points.
#1 Passive voice can cause confusion
The sentence construction of passive voice can often leave readers confused and leave them wondering the exact meaning of your writing.
Here’s an example in passive voice:
In the meeting between students and the college president, a revised process for creating new on-campus student organizations was developed.
Sure, you know that a process was revised, but this sentence doesn’t tell you who revised the process. The students? The president? Both the students and the president together?
Let’s revise this sentence to active voice to eliminate any confusion:
In a recent meeting, the students and college president worked together to revise the process for creating new on-campus student organizations.
Not only is this sentence more specific, but it’s also a lot easier to read.
#2 Passive voice can lead to weak writing
Ever write a sentence like one of these?
- A lot of people were harmed.
- The elderly were cheated.
- Animals were treated poorly.
If you have, then you’re guilty of not only writing in passive voice, but also writing a generalized and weak sentence.
These types of sentences tell your readers very little. Your professor will think you haven’t done your research and that you’re simply writing these broad statements because you don’t have the facts to back them up.
In order to strengthen your writing, revise statements to active voice and add specific details.
Check out these revisions:
- Contaminated meat sickened 23 people.
- Last year, company XYZ stole more than $1 million from the elderly in Florida.
- Police found eight dogs in unsafe living conditions.
See? Don’t these sentences sound better? By writing in active voice, not only are the subjects of the sentences doing something, but they’re also specific subjects that demonstrate you have done your homework!
#3 Sometimes it’s okay to use passive voice
I’ve been writing about why you shouldn’t use passive voice, but technically, it is not grammatically incorrect. Your teachers won’t mark you down for incorrect grammar, but you might lose some style points.
Remember, active and passive voice are style issues. There are times when passive voice is a better option.
Here are four instances where passive voice can actually strengthen your writing.
1. If you don’t know the subject:
A backpack was left in the library. (The person who left the backpack is unknown.)
2. If the subject is irrelevant or not necessary for readers to know:
A new dorm is being built on campus. (If this sentence is written in a publication for students, it’s not necessary for students to know the name of the construction company building the dorm.)
3. If you want to be general or vague about the subject:
Three computers were stolen from the lab.(The police may not want to release the names of the person(s) who stole the computers.)
4. If you’re writing certain scientific reports:
Participants were asked to complete a series of five agility tests. (Some scientific reports prefer passive voice when describing research methods.)
In all of these cases, it makes sense to write in passive voice. The sentences are still clear, specific, and effective.
You Gotta Have Style
© 1951 John E. Reed (CC0 1.0, PD-PRE1978)
As we’ve learned, passive voice isn’t grammatically incorrect—it’s a matter of style.
Now that you’ve learned when you should and shouldn’t use passive voice, take the time to make sure your paper follows these other style guidelines:
Still wondering if you’ve used passive and active voice correctly? Need to know if your paper has style? Send it our way for some expert advice from a Kibin editor!
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.
What is passive voice?
In English, all sentences are in either “active” or “passive” voice:
active:Werner Heisenberg formulated the uncertainty principle in 1927.
passive: The uncertainty principle was formulated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927.
In an active sentence, the person or thing responsible for the action in the sentence comes first. In a passive sentence, the person or thing acted on comes first, and the actor is added at the end, introduced with the preposition “by.” The passive form of the verb is signaled by a form of “to be”: in the sentence above, “was formulated” is in passive voice while “formulated” is in active.
In a passive sentence, we often omit the actor completely:
The uncertainty principle was formulated in 1927.
When do I use passive voice?
In some sentences, passive voice can be perfectly acceptable. You might use it in the following cases:
The actor is unknown:
The cave paintings of Lascaux were made in the Upper Old Stone Age. [We don’t know who made them.]
The actor is irrelevant:
An experimental solar power plant will be built in the Australian desert. [We are not interested in who is building it.]
You want to be vague about who is responsible:
Mistakes were made. [Common in bureaucratic writing!]
You are talking about a general truth:
Rules are made to be broken. [By whomever, whenever.]
You want to emphasize the person or thing acted on. For example, it may be your main topic:
Insulin was first discovered in 1921 by researchers at the University of Toronto. It is still the only treatment available for diabetes.
You are writing in a scientific genre that traditionally relies on passive voice. Passive voice is often preferred in lab reports and scientific research papers, most notably in the Materials and Methods section:
The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid.
In these sentences you can count on your reader to know that you are the one who did the dissolving and the titrating. The passive voice places the emphasis on your experiment rather than on you.
Note: Over the past several years, there has been a movement within many science disciplines away from passive voice. Scientists often now prefer active voice in most parts of their published reports, even occasionally using the subject “we” in the Materials and Methods section. Check with your instructor or TA whether you can use the first person “I” or “we” in your lab reports to help avoid the passive.
To learn more about the use of passive voice in the sciences, visit our handout on writing in the sciences.
When should I avoid passive voice?
Passive sentences can get you into trouble in academic writing because they can be vague about who is responsible for the action:
Both Othello and Iago desire Desdemona. She is courted. [Who courts Desdemona? Othello? Iago? Both of them?]
Academic writing often focuses on differences between the ideas of different researchers, or between your own ideas and those of the researchers you are discussing. Too many passive sentences can create confusion:
Research has been done to discredit this theory. [Who did the research? You? Your professor? Another author?]
Some students use passive sentences to hide holes in their research:
The telephone was invented in the nineteenth century. [I couldn’t find out who invented the telephone!]
Finally, passive sentences often sound wordy and indirect. They can make the reader work unnecessarily hard. And since they are usually longer than active sentences, passive sentences take up precious room in your paper:
Since the car was being driven by Michael at the time of the accident, the damages should be paid for by him.
Weeding out passive sentences
If you now use a lot of passive sentences, you may not be able to catch all of the problematic cases in your first draft. But you can still go back through your essay hunting specifically for passive sentences. At first, you may want to ask for help from a writing instructor. The grammar checker in your word processor can help spot passive sentences, though grammar checkers should always be used with extreme caution since they can easily mislead you. To spot passive sentences, look for a form of the verb to be in your sentence, with the actor either missing or introduced after the verb using the word “by”:
Poland was invaded in 1939, thus initiating the Second World War.
Genetic information is encoded by DNA.
The possibility of cold fusion has been examined for many years.
Try turning each passive sentence you find into an active one. Start your new sentence with the actor. Sometimes you may find that need to do some extra research or thinking to figure out who the actor should be! You will likely find that your new sentence is stronger, shorter, and more precise:
Germany invaded Poland in 1939, thus initiating the Second World War.
DNA encodes genetic information.
Physicists have examined the possibility of cold fusion for many years.