How to Write with an Active vs. Passive Voice

             


In scientific, technical, and business writing, the primary aim isn’t just to get information into documents: it’s to help readers understand the point. To do that, your team members’ writing must be clear, but wordiness and cluttered sentences can interfere with that communication. How do your team members keep their writing clear? One trick is to use active voice.

What is active vs. passive voice?

The definition of active voice vs. passive voice is quite simple: in an active sentence, the subject performs the action, whereas in a passive sentence, the subject receives the action.

What are some active voice vs. passive voice examples?

  • Passive: The hypothesis was tested in an experiment that was designed and carried out.
  • Active: Our team designed and performed the experiment to test the hypothesis.

Or:

  • Active: I made a mistake in the fourth quarter report.
  • Passive: A mistake was made in the fourth quarter report.

How can I identify passive constructions?

Here are three easy ways to identify passive constructions:

  • Can you immediately tell who or what is performing the action?
  • Does the verb use a form of to be like this: is done, are recorded, has been tested, will be reviewed?
  • Is the doer of the action mentioned or is the doer the object of a preposition (by the scientists)?

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When should you use active voice vs. passive voice?

The answer to this question principally depends on what you want to emphasize in the statement. Do you want the emphasis to fall on the actor, or on the object that was acted upon? Sometimes you may have no choice; if you don’t know the actor, you have no choice but the emphasize the object.

  • The internationally famous thief stole the diamond jewels.
  • The diamond jewels were stolen. (We don’t know by whom).

Active voice is also, as the phrasing implies, action-oriented. This gives active voice more energy and power, which is usually a stronger choice in narratives.

The passive voice can also be used to indicate objectivity or impartiality, making it a popular choice for academic and scientific writing. By the way, do you see what we did there? We used passive voice in that last sentence to emphasize the object of the sentence (“the passive voice”) rather than the actor (whoever is using it).

Just remember that the choice of active vs. passive voice can be more meaningful than you think. Consider the example above – “A mistake was made in the fourth quarter report” – obscures the actor and puts the emphasis on the event. Depending on the situation, this could mean shirking responsibility, but it could also mean putting the emphasis – and the reader’s attention – where it needs to go.

In general, we recommend that writers default to the active voice. Active voice immediately makes your writing easier to understand. Active writing also helps to:

  • make sentences shorter;
  • remove unneeded words; and
  • help keep readers engaged.

How do I make a passive sentence active?

Let’s practice with an example:

A book about protein markers for cancer has been written by Dr. Moriarty.

  • First, put the subject, Dr. Moriarty, before the verb.
  • Next, chose the active form of the verb: “wrote” instead of “has been written.”
  • Finally, move the object of the passive sentence after the verb:

Dr. Moriarty wrote a book about protein markers for cancer.

Remember, however, that while readers prefer active voice, that doesn’t mean that passive is unacceptable. Use active when it’s important for readers to know who or what completed the action and passive if it’s not important, you don’t know, or your readers won’t care.

Additional Resources

  • One area where passive voice might be a good idea? Scientific and academic writing. However, the best practices here are more complicated than you might think. Learn when passive voice does and does not work in scientific writing.

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