Sentence Structure & Voice - Active vs. Passive

Students are often mystified when teachers tell them that they write too much in the passive voice. What does this mean? "Voice" has to do with verb placement in the sentence. More specifically, a passive voice sentence either puts the action (the verb) first and the actor (the subject) second, or leaves the actor out altogether, making it hard for a reader to understand who is doing what to whom. Basically, if you use the passive voice, you are structuring your sentence so that the subject is being acted upon instead of acting.

For example:

Passive: The bread was sliced by Jackie.

Active: Jackie sliced the bread.

Passive: Herman's space was invaded.

Active: The big bully invaded Herman's space.

The action is "invading Herman's space," but who is performing the action? The passive voice sentence does not tell us who or what is invading his space, so what is happening is not clear to the reader. Notice the difference in the active voice version when you identify the actor and re-order actor and action to state directly who is doing what.

In addition to being unclear, using the passive voice often makes your sentences wordy and dull:

Passive: It is believed by the president that the changing of the by-laws should be placed on the agenda.

Active: The president believes that the secretary must place the by-law changes on the agenda.

Passive: We were cheered by the news that the faculty meeting was canceled by the dean because of the winter storm.

Active: The dean canceled the faculty meeting because of the winter storm.

 Try to write in clear, active voice sentences in which you identify an actor performing an action. This will make your writing vigorous and concise.

Note: As in everything in English, there are exceptions. You can use the passive voice effectively in three cases:

1. When the actor is unknown or unimportant

Every year millions of people are led to believe they will win the sweepstakes.

2. When you want to draw attention to the person, place, or thing being acted upon
John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy were all assassinated in the same decade.

3. In writing which requires an impersonal voice, such as scientific writing, which often describes procedures--and not the individual who carries them out
The beakers must be filled with the chemical solutions and monitored for three-hour intervals.

Note: The instances in which you use the passive voice are infrequent; use the active voice unless you consciously decide that the passive voice is the most appropriate.

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