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The Essentials of Writing

The Hamilton College Style Sheet

Essentials of English Usage

Passive Voice ("pv" or "act")

Prefer active voice to passive voice.

Easier said than done.  Because much published material is written in the passive voice (as I just exemplified in that clause), we frequently misidentify the passive voice as "academic."  In the passive clause in my previous sentence, to whom am I referring as the writer of such erroneous material?  The reader cannot tell; therefore, the passive voice becomes more an opportunity to deflect blame than to do anything else.  Passive constructions are also frequently wordy, pompous, vague, and misleading.

The active voice, on the other hand, makes a sentence clear and lively. An active construction has a subject, a transitive verb, and a direct object, whereas in a passive construction the object of the action of the verb is the grammatical subject of the sentence. The definition of the latter even sounds more complicated than that of the former.

Active voice follows a standard English subject-verb-object word order; for example:

      s      v              o
My cat broke the vase.

A version of the sentence in the passive voice:

          s                 v
The vase was broken.

A prepositional phrase can add information to a passive construction.

         s                 v
The vase was broken by my cat.

--but the addition makes the sentence clumsier and wordier.

Consider the following sentence, in which the passive voice creates an uncertain meaning:

Count Almaviva, in The Marriage of Figaro, is presented as a likeable, honest, and open-minded person.

Is presented is a passive construction. Because the object of the verb (Count Almaviva) is the grammatical subject of the sentence, we cannot determine who really does the presenting. The two sentences below, using the active voice, state two possible meanings:

The Marriage of Figaro presents Count Almaviva as a likeable, honest, and open-minded person.

In
The Marriage of Figaro, Count Almaviva presents himself to his family and tenants as a likeable, honest, and open-minded person.
 
The writer should choose the sentence that most clearly expresses her ideas.

The use of the passive voice often leads to other awkward constructions:

 1. The process of modernization in any society is seen as a positive change.
[Revision: Most people see the modernization of any society as a positive change.]

2. Through Falstaff, an element of comic relief is introduced to the play.
Revisions: Falstaff introduces an element of comic relief to the play; or, Through Falstaff, Shakespeare introduces an element of comic relief to the play.]

However, there are times when a passive construction may be the better choice. Consider these two versions of the same idea:

3. In the sweatshops, the employees, mostly immigrant women, were exploited and dehumanized.
[Revision: The managers of the sweatshops exploited and dehumanized their employees, who were mostly immigrant women.]

Since the active construction focuses attention on the exploiters and the passive construction emphasizes their suffering employees, the writer of a paper about the experience of exploited laborers might appropriately decide to use the passive version.

Another circumstance under which the passive voice is sometimes appropriate is in scientific writing, where the identity of the experimenter is irrelevant to the description of an experimental procedure or to the results of the experiment.

4. My lab partner and I measured the diameter of the rod with the Vernier caliper. [Too personal.]
[Revision: The diameter of the rod was measured with the Vernier caliper.]

However, even scientific writers should use the active voice whenever they can do so without making a personal reference.

5. In the diagram above, a magnified image is formed by lens L. [Passive voice is unnecessary.]
[Revision: In the diagram above, lens L forms a magnified image.]

Scientific writers should also be careful not to let necessary use of the passive degenerate into wordiness or pomposity.

6. To achieve this goal, readings were taken of the voltage V utilizing the digital multimeter for each of the five values of the resistance R ranging from 10 to 10,000 ohms. [Wordy].
[Revision: The voltage V was measured with the digital multimeter for each of the five values of the resistance R ranging from 10 to 10,000 ohms.]

Whenever you use a passive construction, ask yourself whether the active voice would work better. If it would, use it.

For more information on the passive voice and how to avoid it, refer to Sentence Revision and The First Deadly Sin: Passive Voice.