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April 6, 2012 / maria93

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?

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9 Comments

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  1. thiarayoanita69 / Apr 8 2012 3:34 pm

    You have successfully pinpoint the impact of both active and passive voice in writing. I like how you numbered your reasons for the circumstances when passive voice is needed. It helps to establish your point clearly. It might be better though to put those numbered reasons in bolds as well; since I believe that the emphasis on the blog is more on the reason of when and why we use passive and/or active voice, rather than the explanation of what is active and passive..

    You have done a good job in stating the effect of active voice but I feel that you should elaborate a bit more. For instance, with this sentence in your 4th paragraph -” It is mostly preferred because it is seen as a form of expression that is more powerful and straight forward.” ~ what do you mean by more powerful? Or this one, “By using passive voice the clarity of your writing may be weakened.” ~ maybe you can accommodate an example to justify your point?

    As a respond to your question, my answer would vary depending on what type of writing we are talking about. If it is about lab report, I guess accommodating passive voice is really useful to put the stress on the experiment, rather than the experimenter, thus maintaining objectivity. However, if we are talking about.. textbook for children, I think it would be more effective using active voice; since concepts that are explained with concise, direct wording would be easier to grasp.. (:

  2. priscillalyf / Apr 10 2012 8:59 am

    Good job in explaining what is a passive voice and active voice; you clearly understood what they each represent. I was wondering though about your input on the subject, do you prefer passive or active voice?

    In my case, I prefer passive voice when I write my lab reports, as what thiarayoanita69 said, it puts more emphasis on the experiment rather than the scientist. If others read the lab report they should be able to reproduce the results of the experiment rather than focusing on the steps that the scientist has done. For active voice, I think scientific textbooks are a good example of this, for example, explaining equations needs an active voice because it needs to be to the point and prevents confusion to the reader when the equation is being explained. Therefore I think the passive voice does retain objectivity in certain cases, like in lab reports, but if the writer is using too much passive voice I do think there could be some ambiguity there. It could be more confusing rather than trying to get the point across.

  3. n20939715 / Apr 10 2012 12:44 pm

    Nice explanations. I think the examples you chose and the way you used them was really great. They really helped the reader grasp the difference between the two and in what situations passive voice is more appropriate.

    In relation to science writing, I think the passive voice is often necessary in comparison to other types of writing. Certain science writing would contain a lot of precise details that might be inappropriate to put in the active voice. As ‘priscillalyf’ mentioned, it can be fitting in terms of describing a scientific method in a lab report. Otherwise, in such writing as a fiction novel, if you are aiming to grip the reader, passive voice might get boring.

  4. selinamj / Apr 11 2012 6:13 am

    You explained the difference between active and passive voice really clearly in this post which was great and the examples really helped.
    To me passive voice is the single most irritating thing to encounter when reading something. It is not how we would naturally speak and hence it takes extra effort to really process what is being said. Passive voice makes it very easy to trip over words and on the whole is often quite confusing.
    I understand that it does promote objectivity but I don’t really think it is all that necessary, even in lab reports. People, including scientists, should aim to make their writing as simple and easy to understand as possible and I see one was to achieve this is by trying to use the active voice wherever appropriate.

  5. gracerussell1 / Apr 13 2012 4:42 am

    After reading the blog post by Linda Cooper, I think you did a great job in interpreting her blog post and then expanding on her simple “original” – “revised” paragraphs.
    I do have to agree with ‘priscillalyf’ in regards to not knowing if your for or against passive or active. You seem to have great examples of both, but do not clearly define to your audience if you prefer one over the other, or maybe you like both but in different situations.
    I also have to agree with ‘selinamj’, as i also do not like passive voice. It makes simple ideas seem confusing. Stick to what you think is best for your readers.
    All in all good job.

  6. maria93 / Apr 13 2012 4:53 am

    I agree with the point that the use of active or passive voice depends on the type of writing or the audience of the writing.

    I prefer the use of active voice generally as it can be so much easier to understand than passive voice, which can be quite complicating at times because it is different to how we would naturally speak.

    Although the exception for me would be in lab reports as i see how the use passive voice maintains objectivity.

    Thanks for the comments 🙂

  7. markforeman92 / Apr 13 2012 8:32 am

    Good explanations! I didn’t really appreciate the use and effectiveness of active or passive voice, i suppose it’s not something we analyse that much!

    I agree with a few of the previous comments in that which ever one you use depends on the audience/purpose of what you’re writing. I think that using a passive tone probably sounds a bit more formal, hence it’s use in lab reports etc. But i find active tone to be more to the point. Straight forward and easier to understand. Both are effective and used in different ways.

    Good job on the post!

  8. fullclever / Apr 13 2012 2:21 pm

    Good Job, Maria! You were pristine clear and imparcial in the explanation. Just because something is easier it does not mean that it must always be taken as the first choice. It would lead us to laziness and anarchy.
    Lab reports require impartiality and relevance of the matters for practical purposes. If the passive voice suits better for these demands, why not?
    What I really appreciated was the space you gave us for discussion without any bias. And I loved your final question.

  9. bonnyp / Apr 16 2012 2:43 am

    I liked your explanations and examples of active and passive voice, it was a good introduction to your blog post. I agree that the revisions made in Linda Cooper’s blog post made the content easier to read, and I also prefer the use of active voice over passive.

    As others have mentioned, I think that there are different types of writing that are suited to either the active or passive voice. The active voice is good for textbooks as it can be more engaging and make the content easier to learn/understand. I also like use of the active voice in newspaper articles, as I think it often makes them more direct and interesting to read.

    However, I do prefer reading lab reports written in passive voice, as although they can be harder to read, they seem to have greater objectivity and emphasis on the scientific content such as figures of facts. I think passive voice can make lab reports sound more “professional”.

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