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Passive and Active Voice

Active Voice

The sentence's subject is the actor that performs the verb.
Eg. The cat devoured the treats.

Passive Voice

The subject receives the action of the verb. You can drop the actor altogether. 

Eg. The treats were devoured by the cat.
The treats were devoured. 


When is Passive Voice a Problem? 

Passive voice emphasizes the thing that is being acted upon and can be used to hide the actor or performer of an action. Many academic style guides recommend defaulting to active voice because it is engaging for the reader. Using the passive voice can 

  • cause confusion about who is responsible for the sentence's action
  • make sentences wordy and harder to understand
  • deny agency 

When is Passive Voice Useful? 

Don't despair, the passive voice has its uses! It can

  • hide the actor's identity
    • Eg. The Venus of Wilborroworf was sculpted sometime during the Upper Paleolithic era (Antl-Weiser, 2009, p. 131).
      • We don't know who sculpted this object. 
  • emphasize the action or its receiver over the actor
    • Eg. The patient was diagnosed yesterday.
      • The patient is centred instead of the individual who did the diagnosing. 
  • maintain focus in a passage after the actor's identity is established
    • The United Nations General Assembly ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The UDHR has been used in a variety of legal codes across the globe since its acceptance.
      • The UDHR is the main idea in this passage, and the second sentence uses the passive voice the keep the reader focused on it.
  • be used in scientific writing
    • Two grams of sodium chloride were added to the solution.
      • Lab reports and scientific papers traditionally favour passive voice because it helps emphasize the process and methods as opposed to the researcher. However, centring the researcher in scientific writing by using active voice is becoming increasingly popular as a means of uncovering and addressing implicit bias.
  • offer a tone of authority 
    • Smoking is prohibited on this flight.
      • It does not matter who prohibited smoking; just don't smoke on the flight, okay?  
Antl-Weiser, W. (2009). The time of the Wilborroworf Figurines and new results of Palaeolithic research in Lower Austria. Anthropologie 47(1-2), 131-141.