by Lindsey Strang
Ever had a professor stress the importance of making sure your written assignments are free of any and all grammatical errors? There’s a good chance she cautioned against using the passive voice. Although most of your classmates probably nodded knowingly, you are not alone if this advice caused you some concern and confusion. Many intelligent college students aren’t exactly sure what this mistake looks like or how to avoid it in their papers.
There is one essential difference between the active and the passive voice:
- In a sentence written in the active voice, the subject (or “doer”) acts upon something (the “receiver” of the action).
Example: Alex wrote the essay on Alzheimer’s.
- In a sentence written in the passive voice, the subject is acted upon.
Example: The essay on Alzheimer’s was written by Alex.
While the distinction between these two types of sentences sounds simple enough, it is often difficult to avoid using the passive voice when you’re not used to worrying about it. Because both sentences are technically grammatical, you may find it difficult to understand why one type is good and the other bad.
Here are some key reasons why writing in the active voice is usually preferable:
1. Sentences in the active voice are generally more clear and direct and less confusing.
2. Sentences in the active voice tend to require fewer words, and it is typically best to make a point in as few words as possible.
If you’re having trouble noticing passive voice sentences as you write them, there’s a little known tip that may help: you can customize the settings on Microsoft Word’s “Proofing” so that passive voice sentences get underlined. When you click on your Proofing Settings, all of the boxes under “Grammar” are most likely already checked. Right below, there is a “Style” section which allows you to check a box for passive sentences.
Once you locate passive sentences, it is often easy to make them active. For example, to improve the passive version of the above sentence all you need to do is locate the doer of the action (Alex) and move it to the beginning of the sentence. Next, change the verb to reflect that Alex is now the subject doing the action (“was written” should become “wrote”). Move the object at the beginning of the passive sentence (“the essay…”) toward the end as it is the receiver of the action.
As with most so-called writing “rules,” there are certainly exceptions to this one. The passive voice is not completely off limits, and there will undoubtedly be times when you will have to use it. For example, it is often preferable to use the passive voice when the “doer” of the action is unknown.
Example: The ballots have been counted.
Though there are some occasions when passive voice is appropriate, active voice is usually preferable. When you notice a passive sentence in your writing, make sure you have a justified reason for breaking this writing taboo. If you have more than a few passive sentences, there is a good chance your paper is in need of revision.