Active vs. Passive Voice

by Lisa Geren, Writing Center Tutor

Why do some professors insist on active voice? And what does that mean anyway?

First of all, let’s review what makes a sentence active or passive:

Active or passive voice is determined by the verb used in the sentence. They tell whether the subject of the sentence performs action. The boy kicked  the ball. The verb kicked demonstrates the action performed by the boy. On the other hand, sentences that use passive voice generally do not begin with the “doer” of the sentence. For example: The ball was kicked by the boy.  In this case, the performer of the action is not the subject of the sentence.

Notice also that passive voice generally uses more words to say the same thing. Using active voice makes writing more concise, direct and energized; passive voice makes writing more wordy and indirect because the agent (performer) is disguised or unidentified.  Look at the following sentence:

Following all these grammar rules is exhausting.

In this sentence, do we know who is feeling exhausted?

Students feel exhausted following all these grammar rules.

Using active voice forces the writer to give more detail – now we know who is exhausted.

Should writers never use passive voice in academic writing?

Some types of writing in some academic fields require passive voice. For example, in lab reports in the sciences, passive voice is usually preferred, since passive voice is more “objective” and puts less emphasis on the researcher and more emphasis on the experiment.

How do I know when I’m using passive voice?

Passive voice is technically when you use a “to be” verb and a present or past participle as in the sentence reference above: Following all these grammar rulesis exhausting. Or I was exhausted after writing all these grammar rules.
But also limiting “to be” verbs will also make your writing stronger and more active.

To Be Verbs:

is                am
are             be
was            been
were          being

You can also tell you are using passive voice when you use the “by” in the sentence as in: The ball was kicked by the boy.