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- How to use the passive voice in a report
How to use the passive voice in reports
Hey, welcome to another free episode of the Art of Business English podcast.
In this week's episode I am sharing with you some tips on how you can use the passive voice in your reports.
Do you write reports for work? If so, then you will definitely need to check out this episode. Using the passive voice in your writing will help it to sound more formal and less personal. This is ideal for a report, as a report is a piece of writing that has a neutral to formal tone.
Watch the episode here
The Passive Form
The active voice shows what something does. The passive voice shows what happens to something. We make the passive with a form of the verb be + past participle.
We do not use the passive with intransitive verbs (verbs which cannot have an object):
He arrived (not he was arrived)
Use of the Passive
We use the passive when:
When the object is more important than the subject and the agent is either obvious, not important, or unknown:
- When the object is more important than the subject and the agent is either obvious, not important, or unknown. Example: All applications are processed on the spot (it is obvious that it is the Government employee who does this)
- In formal writing to make it less personal. Example: You are advised to return the application form within three days. (Impersonal)
- The active voice is more direct and personal. Example: I advise you to return the application form within three days.
- When we describe a process. Example: The union is run by seven executive officers who are elected by students.
- We do not generally use the passive for natural (or biological) processes, where people are not involved (e.g. the carbon cycle). Example: Plants take up carbon dioxide from the air as part of photosynthesis.
Notice how if we want to repeat the ending of the previous clause or sentences at the beginning of the next, we may need to use the passive:
Does the university run the union ?
No, the union is run by seven executive officers
Who are elected by students each year.
The executive officers are held accountable by the union council .
The council is also elected by the student’s population.
This pattern is typical of academic writing.
Tips for Report Writing
- Make sure you introduce the topic by providing background information and stating the aim of the report
- Make sure you use a title and sub-headings to help guide the reader
- Make sure you use neutral or formal language depending on the target reader
- Make sure you use the passive voice to make the report more formal and less personal
Expressions for your Report
- The aim/purpose of this report is to...
- The focus of this report is…
Comparing and contrasting:
- There is a growing disparity between…
- There is a clear distinction between
- In light of the above, the following recommendations should be adopted.
- In view of the problems outlined in this report, adopting the recommendations in this report would…
So, that is how we use the passive voice in formal writing and that is how you can implement it in your next report.
Please feel free to drop me your comments below and I will be happy to clarify any questions that you may have.
Be sure to stay with me next week as I complete this series into the passive. We will be looking at using the passive for reporting information and talking about services.
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What this handout is about.
This handout will help you understand what the passive voice is, why many professors and writing instructors frown upon it, and how you can revise your paper to achieve greater clarity. Some things here may surprise you. We hope this handout will help you to understand the passive voice and allow you to make more informed choices as you write.
So what is the passive voice? First, let’s be clear on what the passive voice isn’t. Below, we’ll list some common myths about the passive voice:
1. Myth: Use of the passive voice constitutes a grammatical error.
Use of the passive voice is not a grammatical error. It’s a stylistic issue that pertains to clarity—that is, there are times when using the passive voice can prevent a reader from understanding what you mean.
2. Myth: Any use of “to be” (in any form) constitutes the passive voice.
The passive voice entails more than just using a being verb. Using “to be” can weaken the impact of your writing, but it is occasionally necessary and does not by itself constitute the passive voice.
3. Myth: The passive voice always avoids the first person; if something is in first person (“I” or “we”) it’s also in the active voice.
On the contrary, you can very easily use the passive voice in the first person. Here’s an example: “I was hit by the dodgeball.”
4. Myth: You should never use the passive voice.
While the passive voice can weaken the clarity of your writing, there are times when the passive voice is OK and even preferable.
5. Myth: I can rely on my grammar checker to catch the passive voice.
See Myth #1. Since the passive voice isn’t a grammar error, it’s not always caught. Typically, grammar checkers catch only a fraction of passive voice usage.
Do any of these misunderstandings sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. That’s why we wrote this handout. It discusses how to recognize the passive voice, when you should avoid it, and when it’s OK.
Defining the passive voice
A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Take a look at this passive rephrasing of a familiar joke:
Why was the road crossed by the chicken?
Who is doing the action in this sentence? The chicken is the one doing the action in this sentence, but the chicken is not in the spot where you would expect the grammatical subject to be. Instead, the road is the grammatical subject. The more familiar phrasing (why did the chicken cross the road?) puts the actor in the subject position, the position of doing something—the chicken (the actor/doer) crosses the road (the object). We use active verbs to represent that “doing,” whether it be crossing roads, proposing ideas, making arguments, or invading houses (more on that shortly).
Once you know what to look for, passive constructions are easy to spot. Look for a form of “to be” (is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. (The past participle is a form of the verb that typically, but not always, ends in “-ed.” Some exceptions to the “-ed” rule are words like “paid” (not “payed”) and “driven.” (not “drived”).
Here’s a sure-fire formula for identifying the passive voice:
form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice
The metropolis has been scorched by the dragon’s fiery breath.
When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her remarriage.
Not every sentence that contains a form of “have” or “be” is passive! Forms of the word “have” can do several different things in English. For example, in the sentence “John has to study all afternoon,” “has” is not part of a past-tense verb. It’s a modal verb, like “must,” “can,” or “may”—these verbs tell how necessary it is to do something (compare “I have to study” versus “I may study”). And forms of “be” are not always passive, either—”be” can be the main verb of a sentence that describes a state of being, rather than an action. For example, the sentence “John is a good student” is not passive; “is” is simply describing John’s state of being. The moral of the story: don’t assume that any time you see a form of “have” and a form of “to be” together, you are looking at a passive sentence.
Need more help deciding whether a sentence is passive? Ask yourself whether there is an action going on in the sentence. If so, what is at the front of the sentence? Is it the person or thing that does the action? Or is it the person or thing that has the action done to it? In a passive sentence, the object of the action will be in the subject position at the front of the sentence. As discussed above, the sentence will also contain a form of be and a past participle. If the subject appears at all, it will usually be at the end of the sentence, often in a phrase that starts with “by.” Take a look at this example:
The fish was caught by the seagull.
If we ask ourselves whether there’s an action, the answer is yes: a fish is being caught. If we ask what’s at the front of the sentence, the actor or the object of the action, it’s the object: the fish, unfortunately for it, got caught, and there it is at the front of the sentence. The thing that did the catching—the seagull—is at the end, after “by.” There’s a form of be (was) and a past participle (caught). This sentence is passive.
Let’s briefly look at how to change passive constructions into active ones. You can usually just switch the word order, making the actor and subject one by putting the actor up front:
The dragon has scorched the metropolis with his fiery breath.
After suitors invaded her house, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her remarriage.
To repeat, the key to identifying the passive voice is to look for both a form of “to be” and a past participle, which usually, but not always, ends in “-ed.”
Clarity and meaning
The primary reason why your instructors frown on the passive voice is that they often have to guess what you mean. Sometimes, the confusion is minor. Let’s look again at that sentence from a student’s paper on Homer’s The Odyssey:
Like many passive constructions, this sentence lacks explicit reference to the actor—it doesn’t tell the reader who or what invaded Penelope’s house. The active voice clarifies things:
After suitors invaded Penelope’s house, she had to think of ways to fend them off.
Thus many instructors—the readers making sense of your writing—prefer that you use the active voice. They want you to specify who or what is doing the action. Compare the following two examples from an anthropology paper on a Laotian village to see if you agree.
(passive) A new system of drug control laws was set up. (By whom?)
(active) The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party set up a new system of drug control laws.
Here’s another example, from the same paper, that illustrates the lack of precision that can accompany the passive voice:
Gender training was conducted in six villages, thus affecting social relationships.
And a few pages later:
Plus, marketing links were being established.
In both paragraphs, the writer never specifies the actors for those two actions (Who did the gender training? Who established marketing links?). Thus the reader has trouble appreciating the dynamics of these social interactions, which depend upon the actors conducting and establishing these things.
The following example, once again from that paper on The Odyssey, typifies another instance where an instructor might desire more precision and clarity:
Although Penelope shares heroic characteristics with her husband, Odysseus, she is not considered a hero.
Who does not consider Penelope a hero? It’s difficult to tell, but the rest of that paragraph suggests that the student does not consider Penelope a hero (the topic of the paper). The reader might also conceivably think that the student is referring to critics, scholars, or modern readers of The Odyssey. One might argue that the meaning comes through here—the problem is merely stylistic. Yet style affects how your reader understands your argument and content. Awkward or unclear style prevents your reader from appreciating the ideas that are so clear to you when you write. Thus knowing how your reader might react enables you to make more effective choices when you revise. So after you identify instances of the passive, you should consider whether your use of the passive inhibits clear understanding of what you mean.
Summarizing history or literary plots with the passive voice: don’t be a lazy thinker or writer!
With the previous section in mind, you should also know that some instructors proclaim that the passive voice signals sloppy, lazy thinking. These instructors argue that writers who overuse the passive voice have not fully thought through what they are discussing and that this makes for imprecise arguments. Consider these sentences from papers on American history:
The working class was marginalized. African Americans were discriminated against. Women were not treated as equals.
Such sentences lack the precision and connection to context and causes that mark rigorous thinking. The reader learns little about the systems, conditions, human decisions, and contradictions that produced these groups’ experiences of oppression. And so the reader—the instructor—questions the writer’s understanding of these things.
It is especially important to be sure that your thesis statement is clear and precise, so think twice before using the passive voice in your thesis.
In papers where you discuss the work of an author—e.g., a historian or writer of literature—you can also strengthen your writing by not relying on the passive as a crutch when summarizing plots or arguments. Instead of writing:
It is argued that… or Tom and Huck are portrayed as… or And then the link between X and Y is made, showing that…
you can heighten the level of your analysis by explicitly connecting an author with these statements:
Anderson argues that… Twain portrays Tom and Huck as… Ishiguro draws a link between X and Y to show that…
By avoiding passive constructions in these situations, you can demonstrate a more thorough understanding of the material you discuss.
All this advice works for papers in the humanities, you might note—but what about technical or scientific papers, including lab reports? Many instructors recommend or even require the passive voice in such writing. The rationale for using the passive voice in scientific writing is that it achieves “an objective tone”—for example, by avoiding the first person. To consider scientific writing, let’s break it up into two main types: lab reports and writing about a scientific topic or literature.
Although more and more scientific journals accept or even prefer first-person active voice (e.g., “then we sequenced the human genome”), some of your instructors may want you to remove yourself from your lab report by using the passive voice (e.g., “then the human genome was sequenced” rather than “then we sequenced the human genome”). Such advice particularly applies to the section on Materials and Methods, where a procedure “is followed.” (For a fuller discussion on writing lab reports, see our handout on writing lab reports .)
While you might employ the passive voice to retain objectivity, you can still use active constructions in some instances and retain your objective stance. Thus it’s useful to keep in mind the sort of active verbs you might use in lab reports. Examples include: support, indicate, suggest, correspond, challenge, yield, show.
Thus instead of writing:
A number of things are indicated by these results.
you could write:
These results indicate a number of things . or Further analysis showed/suggested/yielded…
Ultimately, you should find out your instructor’s preference regarding your use of the passive in lab reports.
Writing about scientific topics
In some assignments, rather than reporting the results of your own scientific work, you will be writing about the work of other scientists. Such assignments might include literature reviews and research reports on scientific topics. You have two main possible tasks in these assignments: reporting what other people have done (their research or experiments) or indicating general scientific knowledge (the body of knowledge coming out of others’ research). Often the two go together. In both instances, you can easily use active constructions even though you might be tempted by the passive—especially if you’re used to writing your own lab reports in the passive.
You decide: Which of these two examples is clearer?
(passive) Heart disease is considered the leading cause of death in the United States.
or (active) Research points to heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States.
Alternatively, you could write this sentence with human actors:
Researchers have concluded that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.
The last two sentences illustrate a relationship that the first one lacks. The first example does not tell who or what leads us to accept this conclusion about heart disease.
Here’s one last example from a report that describes angioplasty. Which sounds better to you?
The balloon is positioned in an area of blockage and is inflated. or The surgeon positions the balloon in an area of blockage and inflates it.
You can improve your scientific writing by relying less on the passive. The advice we’ve given for papers on history or literature equally applies to papers in more “scientific” courses. No matter what field you’re writing in, when you use the passive voice, you risk conveying to your reader a sense of uncertainty and imprecision regarding your writing and thinking. The key is to know when your instructor wants you to use the passive voice. For a more general discussion of writing in the sciences , see our handout.
“Swindles and perversions”
Before we discuss a few instances when the passive might be preferable, we should mention one of the more political uses of the passive: to hide blame or obscure responsibility. You wouldn’t do this, but you can learn how to become a critic of those who exhibit what George Orwell included among the “swindles and perversions” of writing. For example:
Mistakes were made.
The Exxon Company accepts that a few gallons might have been spilled.
By becoming critically aware of how others use language to shape clarity and meaning, you can learn how better to revise your own work. Keep Orwell’s swindles and perversions in mind as you read other writers. Because it’s easy to leave the actor out of passive sentences, some people use the passive voice to avoid mentioning who is responsible for certain actions.
So when is it OK to use the passive?
Sometimes the passive voice is the best choice. Here are a few instances when the passive voice is quite useful:
1. To emphasize an object. Take a look at this example:
One hundred votes are required to pass the bill.
This passive sentence emphasizes the number of votes required. An active version of the sentence (“The bill requires 100 votes to pass”) would put the emphasis on the bill, which may be less dramatic.
2. To de-emphasize an unknown subject/actor. Consider this example:
Over 120 different contaminants have been dumped into the river.
If you don’t know who the actor is—in this case, if you don’t actually know who dumped all of those contaminants in the river—then you may need to write in the passive. But remember, if you do know the actor, and if the clarity and meaning of your writing would benefit from indicating him/her/it/them, then use an active construction. Yet consider the third case.
3. If your readers don’t need to know who’s responsible for the action.
Here’s where your choice can be difficult; some instances are less clear than others. Try to put yourself in your reader’s position to anticipate how he/she will react to the way you have phrased your thoughts. Here are two examples:
(passive) Baby Sophia was delivered at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.
and (active) Dr. Susan Jones delivered baby Sophia at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.
The first sentence might be more appropriate in a birth announcement sent to family and friends—they are not likely to know Dr. Jones and are much more interested in the “object”(the baby) than in the actor (the doctor). A hospital report of yesterday’s events might be more likely to focus on Dr. Jones’ role.
Summary of strategies
- Look for the passive voice: “to be” + a past participle (usually, but not always, ending in “-ed”)
- If you don’t see both components, move on.
- Does the sentence describe an action? If so, where is the actor? Is he/she/it in the grammatical subject position (at the front of the sentence) or in the object position (at the end of the sentence, or missing entirely)?
- Does the sentence end with “by…”? Many passive sentences include the actor at the end of the sentence in a “by” phrase, like “The ball was hit by the player ” or “The shoe was chewed up by the dog .” “By” by itself isn’t a conclusive sign of the passive voice, but it can prompt you to take a closer look.
- Is the doer/actor indicated? Should you indicate him/her/it?
- Does it really matter who’s responsible for the action?
- Would your reader ask you to clarify a sentence because of an issue related to your use of the passive?
- Do you use a passive construction in your thesis statement?
- Do you use the passive as a crutch in summarizing a plot or history, or in describing something?
- Do you want to emphasize the object?
- If you decide that your sentence would be clearer in the active voice, switch the sentence around to make the subject and actor one. Put the actor (the one doing the action of the sentence) in front of the verb.
Towards active thinking and writing
We encourage you to keep these tips in mind as you revise. While you may be able to employ this advice as you write your first draft, that’s not necessarily always possible. In writing, clarity often comes when you revise, not on your first try. Don’t worry about the passive if that stress inhibits you in getting your ideas down on paper. But do look for it when you revise. Actively make choices about its proper place in your writing. There is nothing grammatically or otherwise “wrong” about using the passive voice. The key is to recognize when you should, when you shouldn’t, and when your instructor just doesn’t want you to. These choices are yours. We hope this handout helps you to make them.
Works consulted and suggested reading
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Anson, Chris M., and Robert A. Schwegler. 2010. The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers , 6th ed. New York: Longman.
Baron, Dennis E. 1989. “The Passive Voice Can Be Your Friend.” In Declining Grammar and Other Essays on the English Vocabulary , 17-22. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers.
Hjortshoj, Keith. 2001. The Transition to College Writing . New York: Bedford/St Martin’s.
Lanham, Richard A. 2006. Revising Prose , 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman.
Orwell, George. 1968. “Politics and the English Language.” In The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell , edited by Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell, 4: 127-140. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich.
Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2000. The Allyn and Bacon Handbook , 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Strunk, William, and E.B. White. 2000. The Elements of Style , 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Trimble, John R. 2000. Writing With Style , 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Williams, Joseph, and Joseph Bizup. 2017. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace , 12th ed. Boston: Pearson.
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Passive Voice: When to Use It and When to Avoid It
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What is passive voice?
In English, all sentences are in either “active” or “passive” voice:
active: Werner Heisenberg formulated the uncertainty principle in 1927. passive: The uncertainty principle was formulated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927.
In an active sentence, the person or thing responsible for the action in the sentence comes first. In a passive sentence, the person or thing acted on comes first, and the actor is added at the end, introduced with the preposition “by.” The passive form of the verb is signaled by a form of “to be”: in the sentence above, “was formulated” is in passive voice while “formulated” is in active.
In a passive sentence, we often omit the actor completely:
The uncertainty principle was formulated in 1927.
When do I use passive voice?
In some sentences, passive voice can be perfectly acceptable. You might use it in the following cases:
The cave paintings of Lascaux were made in the Upper Old Stone Age. [We don’t know who made them.]
An experimental solar power plant will be built in the Australian desert. [We are not interested in who is building it.]
Mistakes were made. [Common in bureaucratic writing!]
Rules are made to be broken. [By whomever, whenever.]
Insulin was first discovered in 1921 by researchers at the University of Toronto. It is still the only treatment available for diabetes.
The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid.
In these sentences you can count on your reader to know that you are the one who did the dissolving and the titrating. The passive voice places the emphasis on your experiment rather than on you.
Note: Over the past several years, there has been a movement within many science disciplines away from passive voice. Scientists often now prefer active voice in most parts of their published reports, even occasionally using the subject “we” in the Materials and Methods section. Check with your instructor or TA whether you can use the first person “I” or “we” in your lab reports to help avoid the passive.
When should I avoid passive voice?
Passive sentences can get you into trouble in academic writing because they can be vague about who is responsible for the action:
Both Othello and Iago desire Desdemona. She is courted. [Who courts Desdemona? Othello? Iago? Both of them?]
Academic writing often focuses on differences between the ideas of different researchers, or between your own ideas and those of the researchers you are discussing. Too many passive sentences can create confusion:
Research has been done to discredit this theory. [Who did the research? You? Your professor? Another author?]
Some students use passive sentences to hide holes in their research:
The telephone was invented in the nineteenth century. [I couldn’t find out who invented the telephone!]
Finally, passive sentences often sound wordy and indirect. They can make the reader work unnecessarily hard. And since they are usually longer than active sentences, passive sentences take up precious room in your paper:
Since the car was being driven by Michael at the time of the accident, the damages should be paid for by him.
Weeding out passive sentences
If you now use a lot of passive sentences, you may not be able to catch all of the problematic cases in your first draft. But you can still go back through your essay hunting specifically for passive sentences. At first, you may want to ask for help from a writing instructor. The grammar checker in your word processor can help spot passive sentences, though grammar checkers should always be used with extreme caution since they can easily mislead you. To spot passive sentences, look for a form of the verb to be in your sentence, with the actor either missing or introduced after the verb using the word “by”:
Poland was invaded in 1939, thus initiating the Second World War. Genetic information is encoded by DNA. The possibility of cold fusion has been examined for many years.
Try turning each passive sentence you find into an active one. Start your new sentence with the actor. Sometimes you may find that need to do some extra research or thinking to figure out who the actor should be! You will likely find that your new sentence is stronger, shorter, and more precise:
Germany invaded Poland in 1939, thus initiating the Second World War. DNA encodes genetic information. Physicists have examined the possibility of cold fusion for many years.
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This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.
Active voice is used for most non-scientific writing. Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy. Even in scientific writing, too much use of passive voice can cloud the meaning of your sentences.
The action is performed upon the sentence subject, meaning this sentence is passive (indirect).
This is an example of the active voice because the sentence subject performs the action.
This is an example of the passive voice.
This is an example of an active voice sentence because the sentence subject performs the action.
This is an example of an active voice sentence because its subject performs the action expressed in the verb.
Sentences in active voice are also more concise than those in passive voice because fewer words are required to express action in active voice than in passive.
This passive voice sentence is less concise than its active voice counterpart (shown below).
This active voice sentence requires fewer words to communicate the same idea as the passive voice version (above).
This passive voice sentence is more wordy than an active voice version.
This active voice sentence is more concise than the passive voice version (above) because the subject directly performs the action.
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Writing Skills - Active vs. Passive Voice in Your Writing
Writing skills -, active vs. passive voice in your writing, writing skills active vs. passive voice in your writing.
Writing Skills: Active vs. Passive Voice in Your Writing
Lesson 5: active vs. passive voice in your writing.
Active vs. passive voice in your writing
Have you ever noticed how some parts of your writing seem to pop, while other parts don't? You can improve those dull sentences if you take a moment to consider the active and passive voices.
Learn more about the differences between active and passive voice in the video below.
The difference between active and passive
There are two voices in writing: Active and passive. In the active voice, the subject of a sentence acts, like "Neil Armstrong walked on the moon." The active voice is direct, clear, and easy to read.
With the passive voice, the subject is acted upon, like "The moon was walked on by Neil Armstrong". Although the passive voice is still grammatically correct, it typically doesn't carry the same energy or clarity as the active voice. Its structure can feel clumsy and unnatural, which makes your writing harder to read. It also tends to use more words than the active voice. Over the course of a document, all those extra words can make your writing drag.
Overall, we recommend using the active voice more often than the passive. This will help keep your writing snappy and efficient.
Identifying the passive voice
Here's how to spot the passive voice:
First, look for a phrase like "was visited", "has been cleaned", or "will be built". Each one contains a "to be" verb , like "was", "has been", or "will be".
That phrase is followed by an action that's already happened , like "visited", "cleaned", or "built". Finally, the person or thing doing the action comes last , if they're mentioned at all.
If you see these parts together, there's a good chance the sentence is in passive voice .
Changing passive into active
Let's change a sentence from passive into active voice.
Our sentence is, "The money was tossed into the air by Jacob". "Jacob" is our subject, and "tossed" is the verb. Move Jacob to the beginning of the sentence, cut out any unnecessary words, and rearrange a few others. Our passive example is now, "Jacob tossed the money into the air". The delivery is more brief, clear, and more immediate.
When passive is best
Although active voice is incredibly useful, the passive voice is occasionally the better choice. For instance, you may go passive if the actor of a sentence is unknown or irrelevant, like in the sentence, "The amendments will be approved after a discussion". In this case, we're interested in the amendments' approval, not who approved them.
Passive voice is also great for creating an authoritative tone , like on a sign requiring employees to wash their hands. It doesn't matter who requires employees to wash up; they just need to do it!
You may also want to go passive when you don't know who is responsible for the action , like in this example: "The mystery was never solved."
The voice you use can make a big difference in your writing. The active voice will often add pep and clarity, but occasionally the passive voice will be your best option. Take some time to choose the voice that fits best, and your writing will almost certainly grow stronger.
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Why Passive Voice Isn't Helping Your Writing: Tips, Examples, and Solutions
I have heard countless times from people who are getting marked off (whether it’s by a teacher or a grammar checker) for writing too passively, but they don’t know how to fix it. If this applies to you, then this guide is really going to help.
In this post, we’ll go through what passive voice is, how to recognize it, and ways to fix it to improve your writing. We’ll also talk about when to ignore that wavy line and just let the passive voice roll. After all, it isn’t always wrong to use it.
Let’s get started.
- What Is Passive Voice?
The Opposite of Passive Voice Is Active Voice
How can you spot passive voice in your writing, does prowritingaid detect passive voice, active and passive voice examples, how do you fix passive voice in your writing, times where passive voice works, what is passive voice .
Even if you really aren’t sure what passive voice is, you probably have an idea about what a passive person is like (or, worse, a passive-aggressive person). There is a reason that writing uses the same word: They are very similar.
What do you know about the word passive in general?
You may think of someone that just lets things go by them without reacting. Or perhaps you think about a person who never comes out and says what they really feel.
Sentences can do this too. In passive voice sentences, the main actor in the sentence doesn’t really do anything. It lets the action do all the work. It’s, well, passive.
Let’s talk about this in technical terms:
- Passive voice occurs when the subject of a sentence is acted upon instead of acting itself .
We’ll cover more examples later, but just in case you need to see one to understand, let’s start with an easy one:
- The ball was kicked.
Notice that there is a ball at the center of the action in this sentence. It’s the subject of the sentence. It’s what the sentence is all about. However, it isn’t doing anything. It’s just sitting there waiting for someone or something else to kick it. In other words, it is being acted upon . It’s very passive.
That is what passive voice is. And just like a person who is always passive, sometimes you just want to tell that sentence to do something already!
Don’t just sit there letting the writing pass you by. Be more active. This is why many people will say that passive voice is a little boring. If you want your writing to be more lively, then your subjects need to be more lively too.
So what is the opposite of passive, then?
If passive voice occurs when the object or subject of the sentence is being acted on, then it makes sense to learn that active voice occurs when the subject is doing the acting .
Let’s look at the sentence from above:
OK. So one of two things can happen here. For starters, we can ask what the ball, the subject, did. Did it soar through the air? If so, then we can make this sentence active by saying that:
- The ball soared through the air.
Notice that suddenly the ball is doing something. It isn’t just sitting around waiting to be kicked.
Of course, sometimes the problem with the sentence isn’t just that the subject isn’t acting; it’s more that the wrong subject is there to begin with.
If kicked is really the verb you want to use in that sentence, then instead of trying to get the ball to kick something, which wouldn’t work unless you were writing sci-fi, you can instead pick a subject that isn’t the object of the verb.
In other words, make an appropriate subject active.
- Someone kicked the ball.
Now, someone is the subject of the sentence, and they have kicked the ball. Very active.
This is a good start, but I’ll have some more tips on fixing passive voice a little later. First, though, let’s talk more about how to spot passive voice in your writing.
Once you know what passive voice is, it’s usually pretty easy to spot it. However, it’s also pretty reasonable to say you don’t want to go around every sentence asking what the subject is and how active it is being.
That’s why we have some easier and better ways to help you spot passive voice in your writing that take a lot less work.
Tip: The Passive Voice Zombie Test
The first tip I have is called the zombie test. This one is really helpful, and it works well.
If you want to check if a sentence is passive or not, just add the words “by zombies” after the verb. If the sentence makes sense, it is almost always because it is passive. If it doesn’t, that means it is likely active.
Here’s an example:
Let’s go back to that passive sentence from before:
You can go through all of the above steps.
What is the subject? The ball. Okay, what is the ball doing? Nothing. It is just sitting there being kicked. Okay. That’s passive.
It would be easier, though, to just do this:
- The ball was kicked by zombies .
Does that make sense? Yes. It’s passive.
Now let’s look at our active voice sentence to see the opposite.
Once again, you could do a lot of work here.
Who is the subject of the sentence? Someone. What is someone doing? Kicking the ball. Okay. It’s active.
Or you could do this:
- Someone kicked by zombies the ball.
This doesn’t make sense. It’s active.
Caveats to the Zombie Test
Like most things in life, the zombie test isn’t 100% perfect. So let’s talk about some problems you might have with it.
Issue 1: It’s Scary.
Maybe the idea of thinking about zombies just terrifies you, and you’d rather write passively than deal with the nightmares of thinking about zombies all day. If that sounds like you, don’t worry. You don’t need to use zombies for this to work.
Zombies are standard in this test because they are the passive beasts of the monster world. However, there is no reason you couldn’t use “by unicorns,” “by Justin Bieber,” or even “by me” in your sentences. It all works exactly the same.
Issue 2: It’s Not Foolproof.
Let’s say you write the sentence, “She ran.” That is an active sentence (which you can tell because the subject, she, is doing the action, running.) Yet, “She ran by zombies” technically makes sense. So how does that affect the test?
Okay. You got me there, but there is an easy way around this: Does adding “by zombies” completely change the point of the sentence? In this case, the original sentence was all about her running. Now, suddenly it is about her passing zombies on the way. This is a lot different than just learning who kicked the ball, which is still the subject.
At any rate, this usually only happens in really short sentences that only have a noun and a verb. So maybe do some double-checking on these small sentences, but mostly feel free to trust the test on longer ones.
It’s really good to know the grammar rules and how to spot passive voice on your own (if only in case one day you have to hand-write something, your WiFi goes out, or you are taking an in-class test). However, let’s be real: There is another easy way to spot passive voice.
Just look out for the purple highlights in ProWritingAid. They mark the passive voice in your writing so that you can easily spot it without having to bring any zombies into your work. You'll even find ways to rephrase your sentence to the active voice with just a click. Easy!
Check your writing for passive voice with a free ProWritingAid account.
Now that you are perfectly clear about what passive voice is and how to spot it, let’s look at some examples.
Passive Voice Examples
Let’s start with some examples of passive voice:
- Something strange was seen.
- People were scared.
- A meal was eaten.
- The battle was lost.
- The girl is found.
Notice how all of these have a subject that is being acted upon and also how each of these would still make sense if you added “by zombies” after the verb. (Plus, you can’t see this on your end, but I assure you that each of these is being marked by my ProWritingAid extension .)
Active Voice Examples to Compare
I know this is an article on passive voice, but I honestly think it is easier to learn passive voice when you also know how to recognize the active. So, let’s also look at some examples here:
- She ran from the eerie creatures.
- He heard something in the distance.
- We learned about a safe town.
- The sirens rang in the distance.
- The world was quiet that night.
Notice once again that all of the subjects are doing something in these sentences (even the world is being quiet despite that tricky use of “was” that so many passive voice sentences use). Plus, if you add “by zombies” after the verbs, they don’t make sense.
Examples for You to Try on Your Own
Are you ready to test what you have learned? Let’s see which of these are passive and which are active. I’ll put the answers at the end of this post:
- The meal was prepared.
- He was bitten.
- She fought them off.
- They escaped.
- We were left behind.
I have spent a lot of time talking about what passive voice is and how to spot it, which means there isn’t much room left to talk about how to fix it. Don’t worry, though. The reason I wrote it this way is because when you know how to spot it, fixing it becomes so easy it doesn’t need a lot of explanation!
I talked a little bit at the beginning about the two ways to fix passive voice, but I’m going to expand on those here.
Passive Voice Fixer 1: Making the Subject More Active
The first way to make a sentence more active is to figure out what the current subject of the sentence is doing and focus on that action.
Let’s fix a couple of the example sentences from above using this method.
Passive: The battle was lost.
In this case, what action might the battle be doing? Perhaps ending. Therefore, all we’d need to do to fix this is change the sentence to focus on the end:
Active: The battle ended when one side lost.
What about another example?
Passive: The girl is found.
In this one, what is the girl doing? It sounds like she was just waiting around, so let’s make that the verb.
Active: The girl waited there to be found.
Passive Voice Fixer 2: Changing the Subject to Something More Active
The next way to fix passive voice, and perhaps the easier way, is just to figure out who is doing the current action, and rewrite the sentence to focus on that actor.
Let’s use the rest of the above examples to test this method.
Passive: Something strange was seen.
Something strange was seen by whom? By them. Okay, let’s start with them, then.
Active: They saw something strange.
Passive: People were scared.
People were scared by what? By the strange sight.
Active: The strange sight scared them.
That just leaves one more example.
Passive: A meal was eaten.
A meal was eaten by whom? By you.
Active: You ate the meal.
See how easy this all is?!
Even though you usually want people to be able to make decisions and actually do some work, sometimes it’s okay for people to just sit back and let others take control. In the same way, it is sometimes useful to let sentences be passive.
While you want to avoid doing this too much, I thought it was important to end this post with a few examples of situations in which passive voice may actually be your better option:
1. You don’t know who or what did the action. (e.g. The jewelry was stolen! But you don’t yet know by whom.)
2. The action itself matters more than the actor. (e.g. The robber was arrested. We all care more about the robber being arrested than who arrested them.)
3. The actor is really obvious and doesn’t need to be stated. (e.g. The robber was arrested. Sticking with this example, everyone knows the cops did the arresting, so there is no reason to say it.)
4. You want to be vague, evasive, or secretive. (e.g. Mistakes were made. By whom? I’m certainly not admitting it was by me! Companies do this a lot to admit a problem occurred without taking on liability.)
Finally, the moment you have been waiting for. The answers to the practice examples are as follows:
- Sentences 1, 2, and 5 are passive
- Sentences 3 and 4 are active
How did you do?
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- Technical Writing
- For Students
- Technical Writing One
Active voice vs. passive voice
The vast majority of sentences in technical writing should be in active voice. This unit teaches you how to do the following:
- Distinguish passive voice from active voice.
- Convert passive voice to active voice because active voice is usually clearer.
First, watch this video, just to get the ball rolling 1 :
Distinguish active voice from passive voice in simple sentences
In an active voice sentence, an actor acts on a target. That is, an active voice sentence follows this formula:
Active Voice Sentence = actor + verb + target
A passive voice sentence reverses the formula. That is, a passive voice sentence typically follows the following formula:
Passive Voice Sentence = target + verb + actor
Active voice example
For example, here’s a short, active voice sentence:
The cat sat on the mat.
- actor: The cat
- target: the mat
Passive voice examples
By contrast, here's that same sentence in passive voice:
The mat was sat on by the cat.
- target: The mat
- passive verb: was sat
- actor: the cat
Some passive voice sentences omit an actor. For example:
The mat was sat on.
- actor: unknown
Who or what sat on the mat? A cat? A dog? A T-Rex? Readers can only guess. Good sentences in technical documentation identify who is doing what to whom.
Recognize passive verbs
Passive verbs typically have the following formula:
Although the preceding formula looks daunting, it is actually pretty simple:
Unfortunately, some past participle verbs are irregular; that is, the past participle form doesn't end with the suffix ed . For example:
Putting the form of be and the past participle together yields passive verbs, such as the following:
- was interpreted
- is generated
If the phrase contains an actor, a preposition ordinarily follows the passive verb. (That preposition is often a key clue to help you spot passive voice.) The following examples combine the passive verb and the preposition:
- was interpreted as
- is generated by
- was formed by
- is frozen by
Imperative verbs are typically active
It is easy to mistakenly classify sentences starting with an imperative verb as passive. An imperative verb is a command. Many items in numbered lists start with imperative verbs. For example, Open and Set in the following list are both imperative verbs:
- Open the configuration file.
- Set the Frombus variable to False .
Sentences that start with an imperative verb are typically in active voice, even though they don't explicitly mention an actor. Instead, sentences that start with an imperative verb imply an actor. The implied actor is you .
Mark each of the following sentences as either Passive or Active :
- MutableInput provides read-only access.
- Read-only access is provided by MutableInput .
- Performance was measured.
- Python was invented by Guido van Rossum in the twentieth century.
- David Korn discovered the KornShell quite by accident.
- This information is used by the policy enforcement team.
- Click the Submit button.
- The orbit was calculated by Katherine Johnson.
Click the icon to see the answer.
- Active . MutableInput provides read-only access.
- Passive . Read-only access is provided by MutableInput.
- Passive . Performance was measured.
- Passive . Python was invented by Guido van Rossum in the twentieth century.
- Active . David Korn discovered the KornShell quite by accident.
- Passive . This information is used by the policy enforcement team.
- Active . Click the Submit button. ( Click is an imperative verb.)
- Passive . The orbit was calculated by Katherine Johnson.
Distinguish active voice from passive voice in more complex sentences
Many sentences contain multiple verbs, some of which are active and some of which are passive. For example, the following sentence contains two verbs, both of which are in passive voice:
Here is that same sentence, partially converted to active voice:
And here is that same sentence, now fully converted to active voice:
Each of the following sentences contains two verbs. Categorize each of the verbs in the following sentences as either active or passive. For example, if the first verb is active and the second is passive, write Active, Passive .
- The QA team loves ice cream, but the writers prefer sorbet.
- Performance metrics are required by the team, though I prefer wild guesses.
- When software engineers attempt something new and innovative, a reward should be given.
- Active, Active. The QA team loves ice cream, but the writers prefer sorbet.
- Passive, Active. Performance metrics are required by the team, though I prefer wild guesses.
- Active, Passive. When software engineers attempt something new and innovative, a reward should be given.
Prefer active voice to passive voice
Use the active voice most of the time. Use the passive voice sparingly. Active voice provides the following advantages:
- Most readers mentally convert passive voice to active voice. Why subject your readers to extra processing time? By sticking to active voice, you enable readers to skip the preprocessor stage and go straight to compilation.
- Passive voice obfuscates your ideas, turning sentences on their head. Passive voice reports action indirectly.
- Some passive voice sentences omit an actor altogether, which forces the reader to guess the actor's identity.
- Active voice is generally shorter than passive voice.
Be bold—be active.
Scientific research reports (optional material)
Passive voice runs rampant through certain scientific research reports. In those research reports, experimenters and their equipment often disappear, leading to passive sentences that start off as follows:
- It has been suggested that...
- Data was taken...
- Statistics were calculated...
- Results were evaluated.
Do we know who is doing what to whom? No. Does the passive voice somehow make the information more objective? No.
Many scientific journals have embraced active voice. We encourage the remainder to join the quest for clarity.
Rewrite the following passive voice sentences as active voice. Only part of certain sentences are in passive voice; ensure that all parts end up as active voice:
- The flags weren't parsed by the Mungifier.
- A wrapper is generated by the Op registration process.
- Only one experiment per layer is selected by the Frombus system.
- Quality metrics are identified by asterisks; ampersands identify bad metrics.
- The Mungifier didn't parse the flags.
- The Op registration process generates a wrapper.
- The Frombus system selects only one experiment per layer.
- Asterisks identify quality metrics; ampersands identify bad metrics.
Next unit: Clear sentences
1. "Get the ball rolling" is an idiom that means "to get something started." ↩
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Last updated 2022-11-07 UTC.
Text: Using the Passive Voice
There are several different situations where the passive voice is more useful than the active voice.
- The active voice would be something like this: “Someone had moved the paper.” While this sentence is technically fine, the passive voice sentence has a more subtle element of mystery, which can be especially helpful in creating a mood in fiction.
- The sentence is either hiding who broke the window or they do not know. Again, the sentence can be reformed to say “Someone had broken the window,” but using the word someone clearly indicates that someone (though we may not know who) is at fault here. Using the passive puts the focus on the window rather than on the person who broke it, as he or she is completely left out of the sentence.
- We automatically focus on the subject of the sentence. If the sentence were to say “Kent hurt Caroline when he broke up with her,” then our focus would be drawn to Kent rather than Caroline.
- While the trees hurt Caroline, they didn’t actually do anything. Thus, it makes more sense to have Caroline as the subject rather than saying “The trees hurt Caroline when she fell into them.”
Consider the following instances. In each case, determine why the writers might want to use active or passive voice. Write an example sentence based on their circumstances.
- Antonella made an error in her calculations that ruined an experiment. This error ended up costing both time and materials. She has to write a report to her boss. What might she say about the experiment?
- Isabel is writing a supernatural thriller. Her main character, Liam, notices that his keys aren’t where he left them. How might Isabel word this realization?
- Thiago is writing a cover letter to apply for a new job. He is listing out tasks that he does at his current job. How would he want to word these items?
- An error was made that ended up costing time and resources. The experiment will have to be repeated with new materials.
- Liam’s keys had been moved when he wasn’t looking.
- Something—or someone—had moved Liam’s keys when he wasn’t looking.
- I currently work as a teaching assistant for a linguistics professor. I organize her mail, flagging important items so she knows what needs immediate attention; I aid her in her research, finding interesting articles and studies; and I often help her students when her attention is needed elsewhere.
Using the Passive
Now that we know there are some instances where passive voice is the best choice, how do we use the passive voice to it fullest? The answer lies in writing direct sentences—in passive voice—that have simple subjects and verbs. Compare the two sentences below:
- Photomicrographs were taken to facilitate easy comparison of the samples.
- Easy comparison of the samples was facilitated by the taking of photomicrographs.
Both sentences are written in the passive voice, but for most ears the first sentence is more direct and understandable, and therefore preferable. Depending on the context, it does a clearer job of telling us what was done and why it was done. Especially if this sentence appears in the “Experimental” section of a report (and thus readers already know that the authors of the report took the photomicrographs), the first sentence neatly represents what the authors actually did—took photomicrographs—and why they did it—to facilitate easy comparison.
Read the following sentences. Are they using the passive effectively? If there are any errors, rewrite the sentences accordingly.
- The machine needs to be reset at 10:23, 11:12, and 11:56 every night.
- The final steps, which need to be finished before the sun sets over the mountains, are going to be completed by Kajuana.
- The difficult task of measuring minute fluctuations in weight was made easier by the use of a new digital scale.
- Yes. In this case, it doesn’t matter who accomplishes the action; it simply needs to be done. If this sentence appears in an academic article, the passive may be even more appropriate, as that style often demands the actor be left out of the sentence.
- Kajuana is going to complete the final steps, which need to be finished before the sun sets over the mountains.
- A new digital scale made it easier to measure minute fluctuations in weight.
As we mentioned in Text: Non-Finite Verbs , the passive voice can also be used following relative pronouns like that and which .
- I moved into the house that was built for me.
- Adrián’s dog loves the treats that are given to him.
- Brihanna has an album that was signed by the Beastie Boys.
In each of these sentences, it is grammatically sound to omit (or elide ) the pronoun and to be . Elision is used with a lot of different constructions in English; we use it shorten sentences when things are understood. However, we can only use elision in certain situations, so be careful when removing words! You may find these elided sentences more natural:
- I moved into the house built for me.
- Adrián’s dog loves the treats given to him.
- Brihanna has an album signed by the Beastie Boys
- Revision and Adaptation. Provided by : Lumen Learning. License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
- Practice Exercises. Provided by : Lumen Learning. License : CC BY: Attribution
- The Passive versus Active Voice Dilemma. Authored by : Joe Schall. Provided by : The Pennsylvania State University. Located at : https://www.e-education.psu.edu/styleforstudents/c1_p11.html . License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
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Using Active or Passive Voice in Research Papers
When to Use the Active or Passive Voice in Research Writing
One decision that gives pause to thousands of beginning researchers is whether to use the active or passive voice in their research papers. You may have been taught in school that you should always use the active voice, especially when giving speeches and when writing fiction or persuasive essays, as it emphasizes the subject and makes your sentences leaner and stronger.
While this rule generally applies to research writing, there are some definite differences in application–this accounts for why there are so many sentences in scientific journal articles using the passive voice construction. In fact, applying only one type of voice construction can make a paper awkward to read and difficult to comprehend, and it might even confuse the reader about which parts of the study or a given passage are most important. So when should an author choose the passive voice over the active voice and what is the difference between the two?
Differences Between the Active and the Passive Voice
In general, the active voice emphasizes the agent of the action—that is, the person or object performing the action .
Example: “ We arranged the sample groups.”
The subject pronoun “we” leads the sentence, setting off its importance in the action and leading right into the action taken against the object, “the sample groups.” Using this construction doesn’t necessarily imply that “the sample groups” is unimportant, but it does place special emphasis on the agent of the action.
The passive voice, on the other hand, emphasizes the person or object receiving the action.
Example: “ Sample groups were arranged (by us/by the researchers).”
In this example, “sample groups” stands out as the most important element in the sentence, and indeed it should since we are able to omit the agent entirely—adding “by us” or “by the researchers” seems redundant as the researchers are necessarily the ones carrying out the operations of a study. Also, note that by eliminating the agent we have also decreased the word count, which makes the passive construction leaner than the active voice in this case.
Since active-voice constructions are usually stronger, clearer, more direct, and often more concise than their passive-voice counterparts, most style guides advise scientific and clinical authors to favor the active voice in their research writing.
However, this is not a command to silence the passive voice entirely. In fact, scientific manuscripts have increasingly favored passive-voice construction in the past couple of decades. Whether the reasons for this are practical or because it is simply more fashionable today to use the passive voice, there are good reasons to include this construction to gain a balanced perspective in your writing.
Sticking with the conventional wisdom that we should use the active voice as often as possible, when exactly should we opt for the passive? Here are three circumstances in which using the passive voice can be a good decision.
1) When the agent of the action is unimportant, unknown, or obvious to readers
Choose the passive voice when the agent of the action is unknown or unimportant to the action being discussed, or when it is quite clear who is performing the action. In some cases, you may identify the agent using a “by” clause, but it is often unnecessary to add this information.
Examples of active and passive voice:
“Over 20,000 patients are diagnosed with diabetes each year (by doctors) in the United States.” “Encyclopedias have been written (by scribes and scholars) throughout history.” “ Carcharodon carcharias has been studied (by scientists) more extensively than almost any other species of shark.”
In the first example, naming the agent of diagnosis is redundant, as doctors are almost universally the ones who diagnose diseases. In the second example, the author assumes the reader will not be interested in the authors (this decision of course depends on the focus of the study) or perhaps the authors are unknown; the agent may be added in case this information is known and is somewhat important to the statement. In the third example, the agent is fairly obvious, as scientists are the ones tasked with studying species of animals.
2) When the object or action itself is more important than the agent performing the action
In research writing, the study is clearly of greater importance than the researcher undertaking the study (unless that researcher happens to be someone as renowned as Stephen Hawking), and thus the passive voice is more often employed. This object/action focus can commonly be seen in the Methods section, in which an author writes about what he or she did (or rather, “what was done”), mostly using the passive voice since the topics here are generally the research methods, materials, and procedures.
“Frozen embryos were stored in a cryogenic tank for two weeks.” “The extract from sample A was added to sample B to create a mixture.” “The results were assessed using a Chi-square statistic.”
The sentences might be written in the active voice like so:
“We stored the embryos in a cryogenic tank for two weeks.” “We added the extract from sample A to sample B to create a mixture.” “Our team assessed the results using a Chi-square statistic.”
What would be the net benefit of using the active voice here? In none of these examples would the active voice improve the sentences by shortening them or by clarifying the focus of the action. The length of each active sentence is the same as its passive voice counterpart, and the sentences in the active voice actually redirect the focus to the agent —“we” or “our team”—which does not seem to be the most important element in any of these examples. The active-voice constructions are admittedly a bit stronger and livelier, but they seem more fitting for a short story or anecdote than for an explanation of actions carried out in the course of a scientific study.
Another benefit of using the passive voice in the Methods section (in addition to some other parts of the research paper) is that it varies the structure and cadence of your sentences while maintaining an emphasis on the actual work. One can see how a paper becomes more readable when there isn’t constant emphasis on only one part of a sentence.
In the Methods and other sections of the manuscript, use the passive voice to redirect focus to the work being done—the object of the action or the action itself. When editing a manuscript , note this distinction in voice usage between the Methods section and other sections, as it is a common one in research writing.
3) When the recipient of the action is the topic of your sentence
It is sometimes necessary to use the passive voice to place the most important information at the beginning. By placing an item at the beginning of a sentence, you are putting it in the “topic position” (or “subject position”), indicating that it is the central element of your sentence.
Similarly, by placing a word at the very end of your sentence, you put it in the “stress position,” which is often used for words or phrases that modify or qualify the primary focus of your sentence. You can place words in these positions using passive or active constructions.
Active voice: “Scientists once classified slime molds as fungi, but they no longer classify them as part of that particular kingdom.” Passive voice: “Slime molds were once classified as fungi but are no longer considered to be part of that particular kingdom.”
In the first example, “scientists” occupies the topic position, and “part of that particular kingdom” is in the stress position. What might this ordering indicate to the reader? First, it shows that “scientists” is perhaps the main focus (or at least an important element) of this information. Second, by putting “part of that particular kingdom” at the end of the sentence, the author seems to be telling the reader that this qualifying information is also essential to understanding this information.
How might this information be interpreted differently in passive-voice construction? The main difference here is that “slime molds” are placed in the topic position, indicating that they are the primary focus of this information.
Privileging One Element Over Another in a Sentence
Which voice you use and how you order your sentence elements can make a big difference in establishing the importance of one element over another, especially when both of these are important to your study and neither involve the researcher.
In the following examples, there are at least two elements that the study focuses on. Reordering these by changing the voice makes the importance of these positions quite clear.
Active voice: “These amoeba coalesce into a multicellular, slug-like coordinated creature that grows into a fruiting body.” Passive voice: “This multicellular, slug-like coordinated creature, which eventually grows a fruiting body, is created by coalescing amoeba.”
In both of these sentences, the “amoeba” and the “multicellular, slug-like coordinated creature” are central; they seem to be essentially two parts of one process. This process is demonstrated through the active construction, which explains the life-cycle chronologically and therefore places emphasis on both elements (both agents) equally: “amoeba” and “fruiting body” (in the topic and stress position respectively) are at the beginning and end of this sentence and the particular part of the life cycle, with the information in the middle representing the transition between the two.
However, in the passive-voice construction, the “multicellular, slug-like coordinated creature” is in the topic position, the “amoeba” in the stress position, and the “fruiting body” in the middle is described (using a relative clause) as an outgrowth of this “creature.” This ordering completely shifts the focus of the sentence to the multicellular creature itself, with the other elements acting as supporting information. But because “amoeba” is still included in the sentence and is in the stress position, the author clearly wants to show its importance.
Combining the Active and Passive Constructions in a Sequence of Sentences
Whether introducing the purpose of your study in the Introduction section or suggesting further applications or studies in the Discussion and Conclusion , you should try to combine conciseness and clarity of intention to create a logically cohesive structure. This can be done by combining passive and active constructions.
One way to achieve this is to create a structure that “connects backwards”—the final sentence in your paragraph or short sequence of sentences explains the purpose of the first sentence. Let’s see how this might work in action in the Introduction section.
Example of three cohesive sentences ( active—passive—passive ):
[Excerpt from “A Possible Correction of the Face Inversion Effect: A Methodological Commentary” (Rakover, Sam and Cahlon, Baruch)] “The present commentary concerns the face/object (UI) effect. This effect can be explained by appeal to either innate or learning factors. However, this effect can also be influenced by another factor, the ‘baseline-level,’ which is the focus of the present commentary.”
These three lines occur in sequence within the paper’s Introduction section. The first sentence clearly and directly explains the problem of the study (“the face/object (UI) effect”) using the active voice, setting the reader up for a further explanation to follow.
The second sentence, written in the passive voice, explores some potential directions from which this problem can be approached.
And the third sentence unites the two ideas, or “synthesizes” them, using a passive-voice construction. This third sentence has a parallel structure to the second and unites the problem and the proposed explanations using the word “influence” as a unifying action.
By focusing on the topic (“the effect”), the author can create a cohesive structure that uses sentences in both the active and passive voice. Such a passage flows naturally and is more comprehensible and enjoyable for the reader than separated sentences using the same voice construction.
Active and Passive Voice Guidelines
There are several good reasons to vary your sentences between active and passive voice:
- To place emphasis on the most important element of the sentence
- To cut down on word count (sometimes using active, sometimes using passive)
- To make your paper easier for the reader by creating variations in cadence and syntax
As a rule of thumb, choose the active voice whenever possible.
Choose the passive voice when there is good reason to do so. Consider passive voice when:
- The agent is unknown, unimportant, or obvious to the reader
- The agent is less important than the action of the sentence
- The agent is less important than the topic of the sentence
- One topic (among several) has greater importance
To ensure that your voice constructions follow style guidelines, as well as grammar rules, be sure to get paper proofreading services from a reputable English editing company like Wordvice.
- Springer.com. “Stress Position” https://www.springer.com/gp/authors-editors/authorandreviewertutorials/writinginenglish/stress-position/10252690
- Gopen GD, Swan JA. The science of scientific writing. Am Scientist. 1990;78:550-558.
- Rakover, S., & CAHLON, B. (2014). A Possible Correction of the Face Inversion Effect: A Methodological Commentary. The American Journal of Psychology, 127 (3), 303-311. doi:10.5406/amerjpsyc.127.3.0303 Website: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/amerjpsyc.127.3.0303?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
- Wordvice Blog: “Which Tenses to Use in Your Research Paper.” https://blog.wordvice.com/video-which-verb-tenses-should-i-use-in-a-research-paper/
- Wordvice Blog: “How to Choose the Best Title for Your Manuscript.” https://blog.wordvice.com/best-title-for-journal-manuscript/
- Wordvice YouTube Channel: “ How to Create a Title for Your Research Paper .”
- Wordvice Blog: “Choosing the Best Keywords for Your Paper.” https://blog.wordvice.com/choosing-research-paper-keywords/
- Wordvice YouTube Channel: “Parts of a Research Paper.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aO6ipI-d2fw
- ScienceDocs Inc. Blog: “5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Discussion.” https://www.sciencedocs.com/writing-a-research-paper-discussion/
- B1-B2 grammar
Do you know how to use the passive voice to change the focus of a sentence? Test what you know with interactive exercises and read the explanation to help you.
Look at these examples to see how the passive voice is used.
A lot of olive oil is produced in Italy. This book was written by Angela Davis. The suspect will be released tomorrow. This product has not been tested on animals.
Try this exercise to test your grammar.
Grammar B1-B2: Passives: 1
Read the explanation to learn more.
We use the passive voice to change the focus of the sentence.
My bike was stolen. (passive – focus on my bike ) Someone stole my bike. (active – focus on someone )
We often use the passive:
- when we prefer not to mention who or what does the action (for example, it's not known, it's obvious or we don't want to say)
- so that we can start a sentence with the most important or most logical information
- in more formal or scientific writing.
How we make the passive
We make the passive using the verb be + past participle. We start the sentence with the object.
It is not always necessary to add who or what did the action.
Only the form of be changes to make the tense. The past participle stays the same. Here are examples of the passive in its most common tenses.
Do this exercise to test your grammar again.
Grammar B1-B2: Passives: 2
Please explain to me the rules of passive for the following sentence : His employers did not pay him well.
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You need to change the object 'him' into a subject ('he'). The active verb 'did not pay', which is a negative past simple verb, should be converted into a passive verb by putting 'be' into the negative past simple plus the past participle of 'pay'. Then use the adverb 'well' (with no change in form). Finally, the subject 'his employers' goes after 'by' to show the agent.
Why don't you write it out and we confirm if it's correct?
All the best, Kirk LearnEnglish team
Can anyone explain to me the rules of passive the following: I want people to praise me. I don't like people laughing at me.
I imagine what you are asking is how to make these sentences passive.
In both cases, the subject 'people' is eliminated and 'I' is understood to be the subject of the passive verb:
- I want to be praised.
- I don't like being laughed at.
Hope this helps.
Hello, I have a question in the sentence below: *If my modem......, I would send email to Emma. A) didn't break down B) weren't broken down As I know, a thing "break down" means it stops working. While something "be broken down" means someone has damaged it so it stop working. So I my answer is A due to this explanation. But my teacher said B is true. Could you explain this for me? Thank you.
As far as I know 'to be broken down' doesn't imply that someone damaged the object; it just means that the object has stopped working.
In this case, the sentence only makes sense if the modem has already stopped working. Option A) doesn't talk about the state of the modem, but option B) does and so is the correct answer.
' break down ' has several different uses, but when it means 'stop working', it's an intransitive verb . Since it's not possible to use an intransitive verb in the passive voice , it's quite common to use 'be' + past participle, which acts as an adjective. That is the grammar behind 'weren't broken down' here. In other words, 'broken down' is an adjective and 'weren't' is a past form used in a second conditional.
Does that make sense?
Hi, I am a learner too. But I think the explanations is as follows> Both passive and active fit the sentence. But A does not fit because there is a need to meet conditionals structure. Even if it is ok from the POV of passive/active, the correct form were "If my modem has not break ... (to be in line with the rest of the sentence). We need a tense that happen in the past but consequences to be visible now. Then, indeed, option B considers the passive voice and it is ok from all the perspectives.
Please give me your feeedback on this explanation.
Hi David Radu,
It's a good idea to consider the conditional structure. However, it would need to be a third conditional here: If my modem hadn't broken down ... (see this page for more about the third conditional ). The third conditional is needed because we are imagining an unreal past action.
About option B, as Kirk mentioned in his comment, it is not a passive structure, even though the structure looks identical to the passive: weren't broken down (be + adjective). The word "broken down" exists as an adjective (see this Cambridge Dictionary page - here, it is hyphenated as "broken-down" because the dictionary describes its use before a noun).
Another way we know that If my modem weren't broken down ... is not a passive is that with the passive, we can optionally add "by" to show who did the action, e.g. The meal was cooked (by the chef ) . However, it doesn't make sense to say e.g. If my modem weren't broken down by (somebody) ... . That's because "break down" in the meaning of "stop functioning" is intransitive, as Kirk mentioned. It means that the stopped functioning was because of some internal reason (not some external reason caused by somebody/something else, such as somebody causing damage).
I'm struggling with the word "target". Which of these sentences is the correct passive form?
The programme targets junior students 1. The programme is targeted at junior students 2. Junior students are targeted by the programme.
Sentence 1 does not change the subject, but also seems to be correct. Am I missing something here?
All of these sentences are correct. Target (like similar verbs such as aim and focus (on) , and also verbs such as comprise, form and make up ) can be used with the same meaning in both active and passive voice with essentially the same meaning.
The LearnEnglish Team
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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
When you think of passive voice, do you immediately get a sense of dread? A splinter in your mind from your 7th grade English teacher commanding you to never use the passive voice because your writing will be forever banished to the heap of boring work that shall never be remembered?
Like the truly ridiculous admonishment that you should NEVER use adverbs, the passive voice has been stigmatized and misunderstood.
Table of Contents: • What’s the difference between an active vs passive voice? • What is an active voice? • What is a passive voice? • What are the benefits of using an active voice? • Should you use a passive voice in your story? • Ready to publish? BookBaby can help!
OK, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but I’m here to tell you, there’s a place for the passive voice in your writing.
What’s the difference between an active vs passive voice?
Let’s start with identifying the basic differences between the two voices. Actually, let’s take one step further back and identify what voice means.
In grammar, tense is about time reference — is the action happening now (present), has it already happened (past), or will it happen in the future (future)? There are 12 tenses in the English language, but that’s the gist. Voice, on the other hand, describes whether the subject of a clause performs or receives the action.
To put it another way, the key difference between the active and passive voice is what or who is the focus of the sentence. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is performing the action. In the passive voice, the target of the action is the focus of the sentence.
Take this sentence, for example.
Lawrence Durrell wrote the Alexandria Quartet.
That is an active sentence. Lawrence Durrell is the subject performing the action — he wrote the Alexandria Quartet.
That same idea in the passive voice would be: The Alexandria Quartet was written by Lawrence Durrell.
In the active sentence, Lawrence Durrell is the focus of the sentence: he’s the doer, he wrote the four books that make up the Alexandria Quartet. In the passive version’s sentence structure, it is the books that are the focus.
What is an active voice?
Generally, the active voice has a clear, direct, and active tone. It is also straightforward and concise. To construct a sentence in the active voice, you can use the following equation:
Subject + verb + object
The editor covered my manuscript in red ink! That clown really creeped me out. Francis closed the door as the argument got heated.
The editor, that clown, and Francis are the subjects in those examples and are the ones performing the action. Whatever verb you use, if you structure a sentence with the subject performing the verb, you are writing in the active voice. Use the active vs. passive voice when you want your reader to focus on the subject of your sentence and the action taking place.
What is a passive voice?
In the passive voice, the target of the action is the focus of the sentence. Sometimes, that’s where the focus needs to be for several reasons.
The Union Bank on Maple Street was robbed today. The suspects are still on the loose. In news accounts, the writer commonly uses passive voice. Sometimes, it’s because the people doing the action are unknown.
A museum in Ukraine was firebombed by Russian troops yesterday. Sometimes, the focus is on the subject as that’s the point of import in the report. You could say “Russian troops bombed a museum,” which might still be worth considering. But as the context is already established, your reader knows that Russia is waging war on Ukraine, so who is doing the action is likely not the main thrust of the report.
Clinical tests are being conducted for a new Alzheimer’s drug. In scientific reports, the passive voice is also commonly used. Scientists are presumably performing the tests, but they are not the focus of the story in the sentence above. If monkeys were the entities performing the tests, that might warrant a change in voice. This just in! Monkeys are conducting clinical tests for a new Alzheimer’s drug on unsuspecting elderly scientists. Now here’s Jim with the weather…
Sentences in the passive voice are usually wordier than those in the active voice, generally because the construction requires it.
Subject + (some form of) the verb “to be” + past participle of a transitive verb + (optional) prepositional phrase
A participle, for those of us who need a refresher, is a nonfinite verb form (i.e., cannot serve as the main verb in a clause) that is used in a sentence to modify a noun (or noun phrase) or verb (or verb phrase). A participle has some characteristics and functions of both verbs and adjectives.
Clinical tests [subject] are [present tense of “to be”] being conducted [past participle] for a new Alzheimer’s drug [prepositional phrase].
What are the benefits of using an active voice?
There’s no question that using the active voice in your storytelling is the way to keep the action simmering, your reader engaged, and the pace brisk. There’s a reason that news reports and scientific/academic writing is often detached and clinical.
The necessary use of passive voice contributes to this detachment and lack of action. After all, if something is always being acted upon, readers will find it hard to relate. We want to follow your protagonists and antagonists and anti-heroes doing something . Through their actions and motivations and dialogue, we connect to your writing and their story.
Should you use a passive voice in your story?
Yes, undoubtedly, there are going to be passages and sentences in your story that will lean on the passive voice. Here’s a passage from a book I’m writing that uses the active voice to convey an action sequence.
That wouldn’t work in the passive voice. The rock was hit by Philip… his injured left arm was cradled by his right… it would make the telling of the action stilted and clunky and hard to follow.
On the other hand, here’s another passage.
The door was closed. Lights off. The room was bathed in an eerie yellow glow as the moonlight filtered in through the sheer curtain swaying in the night breeze.
We don’t need to know who closed the door. And while you could make the moon the subject of the action — the moon bathed the room in an eerie yellow light — the idea is someone came upon this scene, and the room is the focus.
All that said, you are best off eradicating the unnecessary use of the passive voice in your story. Generally, you want your reader to experience the action as it is being done, through the eyes of who is doing it, not from the perspective of the thing the action is happening to.
Hopefully, this sheds some light on the use of the active vs. passive voice and how to employ them to their best effect in your writing. As is usually the case, there’s lots of room for interpretation and artistic license when it comes to your writing.
Ready to publish? BookBaby can help!
Whether you are ready to publish your book (active), or your book is ready to be published (passive), BookBaby’s self-publishing packages will cover your design, eBook conversion, print on demand, and self-publishing needs. Call us at 1-877-961-6878 or go to www.bookbaby.com and check out our extensive suite of author services.
Related Posts What is an Antihero? Types of Irony to Use in Your Story What is an Extended Metaphor (and how do you use it)? How to Harness the Power of Foreshadowing How To Read Your Writing From An Editor’s Perspective
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Grant Writing: Active vs. Passive Voice – June 2, 2023
Use active voice (vs. passive) whenever possible. Active voice gets you to the point quickly and clearly without wasting words. This is especially important if grant narratives have a word count. Example: "A massive flood destroyed the bridge." (active) vs. “The bridge was destroyed by a massive flood.” (passive). Application readers appreciate clear, concise, direct writing. Think fact, not fiction, and leave out unnecessary drama. And don’t forget to use active voice in your grant progress reports too! Use the grammar checker tool in programs like Microsoft Word to help you quickly identify passive language.
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Do you write reports for work? If so, then you will definitely need to check out this episode. Using the passive voice in your writing will help it to sound more formal and less personal. This is ideal for a report, as a report is a piece of writing that has a neutral to formal tone. Table of Contents Watch the episode here The Passive Form
Myths So what is the passive voice? First, let's be clear on what the passive voice isn't. Below, we'll list some common myths about the passive voice: 1. Myth: Use of the passive voice constitutes a grammatical error. Use of the passive voice is not a grammatical error.
Write with Grammarly The difference between active and passive voice While tense is all about time references, voice describes whether the grammatical subject of a clause performs or receives the action of the verb. Here's the formula for the active voice: [subject]+ [verb (performed by the subject)]+ [optional object] Chester kicked the ball.
phrase or may be omitted. The dog is acting upon the sentence subject (the boy), meaning it uses the passive voice. This example sentence includes the passive voice because the subject (research) is being acted upon (presented) by another person (Pooja). This is an example of the passive voice.
You are writing in a scientific genre that traditionally relies on passive voice. Passive voice is often preferred in lab reports and scientific research papers, most notably in the Materials and Methods section: The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid.
Active and Passive Voice. Active voice and passive voice are grammatical constructions that communicate certain information about an action. Specifically, APA explains that voice shows relationships between the verb and the subject and/or object (see APA 7, Section 4.13). Writers need to be intentional about voice in order to ensure clarity.
General Writing Academic Writing Active and Passive Voice Active Versus Passive Voice Active Versus Passive Voice Active voice is used for most non-scientific writing. Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy.
There are two voices in writing: Active and passive. In the active voice, the subject of a sentence acts, like "Neil Armstrong walked on the moon." The active voice is direct, clear, and easy to read. With the passive voice, the subject is acted upon, like "The moon was walked on by Neil Armstrong".
Passive voice occurs when the subject of a sentence is acted upon instead of acting itself. We'll cover more examples later, but just in case you need to see one to understand, let's start with an easy one: The ball was kicked. Notice that there is a ball at the center of the action in this sentence. It's the subject of the sentence.
A Passive Voice Checker for Your Writing Detect passive voice and get real-time writing suggestions for clearer, crisper active voice alternatives with our free passive voice checker. Suggestions Let's get started. Step 1: Add your text, and Grammarly will underline any issues. Step 2: Hover over the underlines to see suggestions.
A good rule of thumb for identifying passive voice is to watch for "being" verbs such as "was" or "is"; these verbs often describe a state of being rather than a state of action. How Can...
Why do we write lab reports in passive voice? It's part of the scientific point of view. We observe and record as objectively as possible, avoiding personal bias by removing ourselves. Using the passive voice also clarifies procedures and descriptions so they can be easily reproduced and compared.
The vast majority of sentences in technical writing should be in active voice. This unit teaches you how to do the following: Distinguish passive voice from active voice. Convert...
Passive voice is frequently used in lab reports and Methods sections of research reports because it puts the emphasis on the experiment or process being described rather than on the researcher. In the examples below, note how omitting the agent of the action emphasizes the experiment itself and excludes irrelevant information:
Most writing instructors and editors recommend against using the passive voice, when possible. The reason for this is that when you use the active voice, your writing is clearer and less complicated. Active: While Mr. Taylor was driving down Highway 101, a police officer pulled him over and gave him a speeding ticket.
The answer lies in writing direct sentences—in passive voice—that have simple subjects and verbs. Compare the two sentences below: Photomicrographs were taken to facilitate easy comparison of the samples. ... Especially if this sentence appears in the "Experimental" section of a report (and thus readers already know that the authors of ...
Here is the classic formula for identifying the passive voice: A "to be" verb + a past participle + the word by. Active voice: The lion ate the mouse. Passive voice: The mouse was eaten by the lion. In the active voice sentence, the actor (the lion) is presented first, followed by the action (eating) and then the object of that action (the ...
Hey, welcome to another free episode of the Art of Business English podcast. In this week's episode I am sharing with you some tips on how you can use the pa...
Passive voice is when the subject of a sentence receives the action expressed by the verb. For example, "A survey was conducted by the researcher" is a passive sentence because the survey is...
Choose the passive voice when the agent of the action is unknown or unimportant to the action being discussed, or when it is quite clear who is performing the action. In some cases, you may identify the agent using a "by" clause, but it is often unnecessary to add this information. Examples of active and passive voice:
The first one is already in the passive voice (subject + be + past participle). The second one does not have "be" in it, so it's just a noun phrase (noun + past participle). It can be changed into the passive voice: The active voice would be something like: I accomplished the mission. I hope that helps. 2.
We use the passive voice to change the focus of the sentence. My bike was stolen. (passive - focus on my bike) Someone stole my bike. (active - focus on someone) We often use the passive: when we prefer not to mention who or what does the action (for example, it's not known, it's obvious or we don't want to say) so that we can start a ...
Learn the difference between active and passive voice — with examples of how active and passive voice can affect your writing. Good Writing Habits 10 Top Romance Tropes Readers Love
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Use active voice (vs. passive) whenever possible. Active voice gets you to the point quickly and clearly without wasting words. This is especially important if grant narratives have a word count. Example: "A massive flood destroyed the bridge." (active) vs. "The bridge was destroyed by a massive flood." (passive). Application readers appreciate clear, concise, direct writing. Think fact ...