Active Voice or Passive Voice?
Active voice is the voice used to show that the subject of the sentence is performing the action specified by the verb. While passive voice is the voice used to show that the subject of the sentence is the receiver of the action specified by the verb.
Active: Why did the chicken cross the road?
In this sentence the chicken is the subject and is performing the action specified by the verb, which is crossing the road.
Passive: Why was the road crossed by the chicken?
In this sentence the road is the subject and is the receiver of the action, it is being crossed by the chicken.
In active voice the subject/actor of the sentence takes responsibility for the action. It is mostly preferred because it is seen as a form of expression that is more powerful and straight forward. It also uses fewer words to communicate the same message, whereas passive voice can sometimes complicate the text and prevent the reader from understanding what the writer means. By using passive voice the clarity of your writing may be weakened.
Linda Cooper’s blog post ‘Why the active voice, useful transitions, and clear subjects help readers’, is an example that shows the increase in clarity and simplicity of a text when it is changed from active to passive voice. Her revised versions of the text have changed around confused word orders, removed the unnecessary complexity, making the text straight forward and easily understandable.
However there are times when a writer may choose to use passive voice over active voice:
1. To focus on an object rather than the actor
For example; 500 signatures are needed for the petition. (Passive)
The emphasis is placed on the number of signatures needed rather than the petition itself.
The petition needs 500 signatures. (Active)
This would be emphasising the petition which may be less effective
2. To de-emphasise the unknown subject or actor
For example; Over 150 different pollutants have been dumped into the lake.
This is written in passive voice as we do not know who in fact dumped these pollutants in the lake.
3. If your audience doesn’t need to know who is responsible for the action
For example; Baby Jessie was delivered at 1.30am this morning. (Passive)
Dr. Jane Brown delivered baby Jessie at 1.30am this morning. (Active)
The first would be appropriate for friends and family as they may not know who Dr. Brown is, and are probably much more interested in the baby (“object”) rather than the doctor (“actor”). The second would be for hospital records as they would more likely be a focus on the actions or role of Dr. Brown.
Passive voice is sometimes also preferred in science writing such as laboratory reports. The first person is avoided to remain an objective tone throughout the text, although nowadays more and more scientific journals are accepting first person active voice.
Does passive voice give a feeling of ambiguity to your readers or does it help retain objectivity?