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Quick tour of the active and passive voice

It helps to know when and how to use active or passive constructions. Which choice is clearest or most appropriate for your purpose, audience, and type of writing?

Active

Example:

The committee will investigate the high failure rates in these courses. 

Explanation:

  • The committee = subject is the AGENT who performs the action
  • will investigate =  ACTION (verb requiring an object)
  • the high failure rates in these courses.  = GOAL (object)

Passive

Examples:

The high failure rates in these courses  will be investigated.

or

The high failure rates in these courses  will be investigated by the committee.

Explanation:

  • The high failure rates in these courses = (subject is the GOAL)   
  • will be investigated = ACTION
  • OPTIONAL – [by the committee] = AGENT can be omitted

Sometimes the GOAL (the object of the verb) is more important than the AGENT (subject). The passive allows us to place the goal/object at the front of the sentence and, if appropriate, to omit the agent altogether.

Examples:

1. We need more doughnuts for the meeting.

Explanation:

  • We = SUBJECT (agent) performing/responsible for action
  • need = Transitive verb (present tense)
  • more doughnuts for the meeting. = OBJECT of verb (what?)

2. More doughnuts are needed for the meeting.

Explanation:

  • More doughnuts = OBJECT (goal) performing action or being acted upon.
  • are needed =
    • Auxiliary “TO BE” conveys tense
    • Past participle verb
  • for the meeting. = AGENT is optional; can be omitted

 

Choose the passive when . . .

  • you don’t know who did it
  • your readers don’t care who did it
  • it doesn’t matter who did it, or
  • you don’t want your reader to know who did it.

This last reason is ethical if tact or privacy is required. Be careful not to appear deceptive.

 

CAUTION: Much institutional writing uses what is called a “passive-nominalized” construction, like this one—

“An investigation will be conducted into the high failure rates in these courses.”

To nominalize means turning a verb into a noun. This is a useful trait in English, but overusing nominalizations results in lack of clarity. Combining nominalizations with unwanted uses of passive voice often creates a writing style known as “bureaucratese.”  The effect of this style can be chillingly remote as well as unclear.

From the Purdue University OWL: Passive voice makes sense when the agent performing the action is obvious, unimportant, or unknown, or when a writer wishes to postpone mentioning the agent until the last part of the sentence or to avoid mentioning the agent at all. The passive voice is effective in . . . [circumstances when] the action and what is acted upon [is more important] than the agent performing the action.