Common Grammar Mistakes: Active versus Passive Voice

A student recently sent me the following question: “My professor wrote ‘Do not use passive voice’ on their syllabus under the final paper requirements. Why is passive voice such a bad idea?”

I must say, passive voice does get a bad rap. Many people (professors and other writing educators, included) are adamant in their disapproval of the passive voice. In fact, many consider this to one of the many common writing rules everyone has to abide by. I will give you my opinion in a bit but, first, let’s go over what we actually mean by active voice and passive voice.

Active Voice

In the active voice the subject is doing an action– specifically, the action outlined by the verb. Since the subject is active in whatever the verb calls for, it’s referred to as the active voice. This is found in most English sentences.

An example of the active voice would be: Stefanie loves dogs.

The subject of this sentence — in this case, Stefanie— is doing the action: the subject is, in essence, doing the loving. The word dogs in this instance, is the direct object, the receiver of this loving. Again, since the subject is active in doing, this sentence is in the active voice.

Passive Voice

In the passive voice, these roles are reversed. The direct object moves to the subject’s position and, in turn, the subject becomes the direct object. This role reversal is interesting because the focus of the sentence changes, allowing for the subject to receive the action, while the direct object does what the verb describes. So, instead of the active “Stefanie loves dogs”, the sentence then becomes:

The dogs are loved by Stefanie.

In this instance, the subject, the dogs, aren’t active in doing anything. They are just sitting there as the direct object, Stefanie, does all the action– in this case, all the loving. Lucky them.

The passive voice can also be phrased like this: “The dogs are being loved by Stefanie.” This is also valid as it’s still in the present tense and the subject is still passive.

“So, is using passive voice wrong?”

Not necessarily. However, it can obfuscate your writing so it’s best to use it sparingly. The active voice is direct and (ideally) to the point– this is clearly the best for academic writing and admission essays. It’s encouraged to use the active voice because of its clarity and is a great way to make your writing tighter and more concise.

That being said, passive voice does well when writing reports, scientific studies, or anything else that requires objectivity over subjectivity. This is one of the major reasons why scientific studies and police reports are written largely in the passive voice– the writer has to be objective and not insert themselves into the work as a subject or, if the subject is unknown, hypothesize who or what that might be.

Passive voice can also be used creatively, particularly when writing fiction. The passive voice can denote a sense of mystery– “he was killed suddenly in the night,” for instance– and can also create suspense. This is also more reason why it shouldn’t be used in admissions or academic writing.

So, a few words of advice:

  • The active voice means the subject is active in whatever the verb is doing. The subject is doing whatever the verb says it is.
  • The passive is the opposite– it’s not doing it but, instead, receiving it. The direct object is the one doing the work.
  • Not every sentence in the passive voice has to have the verb to be in it. The verb phrase I am is a form of the verb to be which, as I’m sure you can figure out, is very much in the active voice.
  • It’s not necessarily incorrect to use the passive voice, but avoid it unless writing fiction, an objective report of some kind, or a scientific study.


2 Responses to Common Grammar Mistakes: Active versus Passive Voice

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