Passive vs. Active Voice

By Erin

English teachers like myself love to warn new writers against the evils of passive voice. Here at Daily Writing Tips, Michael has written about passive writing, and I recently wrote about dummy subjects, but it looks like there’s still some confusion about passive voice and its use.

For more on passive vs. active sentence construction, I turn to two books that should be staples in any writer’s library: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax.

First, let’s review what passive voice is. In most sentences, we have a subject performing an action. For example: Jason threw the ball. “Jason” is the subject.

In a passive sentence, the subject of the sentence is acted upon rather than performing the action, as in: The ball was thrown by Jason. “The ball” is the subject and it is being acted upon.

Verbs in the passive voice have two parts: some form of the verb “to be” and a past participle form of the action verb: was thrown. (The helping verbs has or have can also appear in a passive verb: the ball has been thrown.)

A writer may choose to use the passive voice in order to emphasize one thing over another. In the second example, the ball (rather than Jason) becomes the most important component of the sentence.

Zinsser says that passive voice should be used sparingly–only when there’s no way around it. “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style–in clarity and vigor–is the difference between life and death for a writer.”

In most (but not all) cases, the passive construction is longer, clunkier, and more vague. Take these examples from student research papers:

The poorer people were deprived of their opportunities.

Documents were cited to prove that an estimated 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants have been admitted to the United States.

Talks have been conducted on the subject of starting a worker program for the illegal immigrants.

In each of these examples, the passive voice construction gives us unnecessary words and clunky sentences that can be easily revised:

Harsh immigration laws deprive poorer people of opportunities.

State Department officials estimate the number of illegal immigrants at from 12 to 20 million.

President Bush has proposed starting a [guest] worker program for the illegal immigrants.

In part, the use of active voice over passive voice is a matter of word economy and simplicity. If you can say something with fewer words, you probably should. It’s also a matter of making your words work for you. As Zinsser says, “active verbs push hard and passive verbs tug fitfully.” Using an active verb helps make the sentence more vivid and precise; does your subject walk, or does he saunter? Does she fall, or does she stumble?

Hale warns against relying too heavily on is and are (and “to be” in all its forms):

Novices tend to rely on is and other static verbs and lose momentum by stumbling into the passive voice.

That said, you still have to be careful not to overdo it. Sometimes, passive voice is useful. Sometimes it’s even necessary. As commenter Bill G pointed out, the dummy subject it is necessary in describing weather phenomenon (it is raining). In Sin and Syntax, Hale gives us this example:

Writers and editors can get too literal-minded about “eschewing the stationary passive.” They forget that the passive voice does exist for a reason. One syntactically challenged slot editor at the Oakland Tribune, sticking adamantly to a policy demanding the active voice, changed the screaming, above-the-fold headline “I-580 killer convicted” to “Jury convicts I-580 killer” (which screamed less loudly, since the stretched-out phrase required a smaller type).

In Hale’s headline example, we can see that the sentence was better served by the passive construction. The action (the killer’s conviction) was more important than the subject of the sentence (the jury). The trick is knowing when to use active voice, and when passive voice is more effective. Many writers–especially beginners–rely too heavily on passive construction, allowing their prose to become limp and lazy. You can keep from falling into this trap by being conscious of your use of dummy subjects (it and there) and “be” verbs.

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18 Responses to “Passive vs. Active Voice”

  • kikollan

    As a scientific writer I am very often trying to decide if I should use the passive voice or not.

    I understand yours explanations about when it “should” be used. But, unfortunately, it seems that there are several old-fashioned journals and editorials that think that scientific writing should be written in passive voice.

    For example, a lot of journals do not allow the use of the form “We have demonstrated that…” and suggest the use of “It has been demonstrated that…”. This is quite inconvenient, because it is important to point out that YOU have demonstrated that 🙂

    Fortunately, this is changing nowadays (or at least, this is my impression).

    P.S. My english is quite bad, so please correct me if you prefer to avoid grammatical errors in your comments section 🙂

  • Elkit

    The use of active voice over passive voice is also a matter of accountability. What is the last time you heard a politician say “I made a mistake” rather than “Mistakes were made”.

    I, for one, do not recall.

  • Afshan Khan

    Hello,

    What about our daily communication at our work place ? Should we use active OR passive voice. I personally feel
    and use passive voice. Let me tell you something about the nature of my job, working at TNT courier in customer services dept. A lot of customers communicate on mail and I mostly use passive voice.

    Will be grateful for your assistance.

    Thanks, Afshan

  • Daniel

    Afshan, can you give us some examples of when you use passive voice while communicating in your work?

    There are exceptions, but most of the times the active voice will make things clearer, and that is always appreciated in the working environment (at least it should 🙂 ).

  • roshan ali

    i just want know how to make passive of these active” i go to schoo”other is “I write with a pen” and more” i swim in water”

  • Yash

    To roshan ali:

    The school is gone to by me.

    The pen is written with by me.

    The water is swum in by me.

    Obviously, ridiculous. But it illustrates by its extremeness the basic problem Elkit alluded to above: the issue of responsibility. The passive voice makes the wrong noun the “actor” or subject– if not really the actor, then at least the focus of the sentence. This usage deflects responsibility from the real actor/subject. That’s what it is about passive voice that weakens the writing.

  • Yash

    Different topic: Did the writer really start out this article by saying “English teachers like myself…”?

    Please clarify the usage of “myself” here instead of “me”.

    Thanks!

  • Asad Jang

    To yash:
    All are wrong :1st Sentence:Verb in this sentence is intrasitive and intransitive verb can’t be changed into passive.
    2nd sentence:Verb in this senctence is transitive but the aditional WITH has changed the sentence.so can’t be changed.
    3rd:same like Sentence No.1st.

  • Avtar kaur

    I always get confused to make passive sentences.It makes me confuse while speaking.

  • Nellie

    Okay, my comments are not going to be on topic, but I felt impelled to share them anyway:

    ” Harsh immigration laws deprive poorer people of opportunities.”
    Actually, they reflect the desires of the American people, something which the government hasn’t been paying attention to lately. We want our country and our jobs to ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Furthermore, these laws keep out people who would reduce our country to what they’ve reduced their country to. Why are they coming here anyway? Because their country (Mexico, for most illegals) is not the most appealing place to live, and who’s fault is that?

    “President Bush has proposed starting a [guest] worker program for the illegal immigrants.”

    He might no longer be president, but most high-profile politicians think like him, unfortunately. What will these traitorous politicians propose next? Starting a “Steal Something Today – It’s On Us” day for thieves?

    Illegal immigrants are criminals and should be treated as such.

    BTW, check out Stormfront. 😉

  • alfonso

    Which is the correct, Has passed or have passed the ball

  • nilima

    i want to know how to make this sentence in a passive form..
    i have a pen…

  • yudi

    for alfonso.. it depends on subject. I, we, they, you = have she, he, it =has

  • Yoda

    What about academic writing? You’d be in serious trouble if you didn’t adopt passive voice. Or worse – you may be accused of writing in a *GASP; HORROR* journalistic voice. 😀

  • Satu

    Question on passive vs active voice:
    Is “All visitors must check in at the entrance…” really a passive form and is it better to write “All visitors check in at the entrance..?

    I thought both are active and the “must” indicates it’s a requirement that visitors check in; without it it’s just a statement about what usually happens.

    I’m obviously confused about the active and passive voice and would like to know since I often have to give written instructions that I try to make as clear as possible.

  • Jenny

    Nellie, what are you even talking about? You’re picking a political fight on a grammar site… Get a life!

  • Suli

    What is the difference- iam writing a book, a book was written by me? Or else i write a book, book is written by me? Is there any difference in the meaning n usage of the. Since the passive is used to denote that the act is done bt in its active format the act is nt yet done.

  • David Boyle

    In business it will endear you to the recipient of a request in England if you use the passive voice. for example:

    Compare this:

    Please can you let me know when the commission statements will be produced?

    To a communication I was recently copied into from my (French) manager.

    When will you produce the next commission statements?

    The recipient and my mananger are known to be involved in frequent arguments and disputes and it is easy to understand how someone English will be offended by this tone (which would be more acceptable in the USA for example).

    On the contrary and as referred to earlier, when we are defining an action for which we are responsible the active voice seems re-assuringly authoritative.

    “I will produce the statements on Thursday.” contains a greater commitment than “The statements will be produced on Thursday.” which leaves doubt about whose responsibility it is.

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