Active vs Passive Voice

When should you use active voice and when should you use passive voice? I always thought it was easy, but after watching a presentation by a friend at the English Research Symposium at USU, I’m not so sure. (You can check out the abstract of that presentation here.) If you don’t know exactly what the difference between these two writing styles is, here it is.

Active Voice

Active voice is a sentence where the subject comes first, then the verb, and finally an object (if any). Writing in active voice is easy (if you have a subject), direct, and not wordy.

Subject + Verb + Object = Active Voice
I + ate + an apple. = Active Sentence

Passive Voice

Passive voice moves or completely removes the subject of the sentence. When you want to focus on the action rather than the subject, passive voice is a great way to do just that. However, when used excessively, it can become cumbersome to read.

Object + Verb + (Subject) = Passive Voice
An apple + was eaten + (by me). = Passive Sentence

What’s the Big Deal?

I always get frustrated when engineering students are told to only write in active voice or to only write in passive voice. Only after I watched the presentation did I realize why this was a problem. By removing the subject from a sentence, people can shift blame away from themselves.

It’s not obvious when people choose to use passive voice, but once you’re aware, you’ll see how people take advantage of passive voice everywhere. For example, take a sentence like this: This problem could have been avoided if this was done. Now, change it to active voice: This problem could have been avoided if I did this. While this is a vague example, I still believe this sentence shows how deliberately using passive voice can remove oneself from the problem.

While choosing passive voice can have this effect, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use passive voice. There are some sentences where the action is clearly more important and should be written using passive voice. This blog post was completed. (It doesn’t matter that I completed the post.)

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