Passive & Active Voice
"The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb
style -- in clarity and vigor -- is the difference between life and death
for a writer." -- William Zinsser
Sooner or later you are going to hear or read that active voice
preferred over passive voice
in your writing. What does that mean?
The *voice* of a verb tells whether the subject of the sentence performs
or receives the action. In English there are two voices, passive and
active. In active voice, the subject performs the action expressed by
EX: The student wrote a story.
In passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed by the verb:
EX: A story was written by the student.
There's nothing grammatically incorrect in using passive voice instead
of active. Passive voice is, however, considered weak, wimpy, and gets
sand kicked in its face at the beach. Active verbs are more natural,
direct, lively, and succinct. They are much more fun at a party. Passive
voice has been accused of slowing down the pace of writing and making it
"wordy." Sentences in passive voice can also be clumsy, awkward, and
The bottle was slammed into the wall by Sherry.
Sherry slammed the bottle into the wall.
Spin doctors, business people protecting their butts, bombastic
academics, and military and political writers use passive voice to
weasel out of taking direct responsibility. The phrase Ads for fruit-flavored
alcoholic beverages were designed to appeal to the 12-to- 18-year-old
places the burden on the ads. We designed ads for
fruit-flavored alcoholic beverages to appeal to children
shows the "we"
accepting responsibility. The board approved the budget
demonstrates who did what. The budget was approved by the board
(passive) is less straightforward. The target was bombed into oblivion
somehow makes it the target's fault it got bombed. We bombed the target
to oblivion places
Passive voice *is* preferable when we need to draw attention to the
object (person or thing) acted upon (The werewolf was killed by three
) or when the actor in the situation is not important (The
eclipse can be observed at noon). Lab reports, scientific or technical
writing often require the passive voice when the object (the process or
principle being described) is more important than the subject important
but the is of ultimate importance. Ten cc of acid is/was poured into
the test tube
rather than I poured 10 cc of acid into the test tube.
we would write The passive voice can be used to point out the receiver
of the action when the performer is unknown or unimportant (Your assignment
will be posted
) or when describing a course of action in which the
details are more important than taking responsibility for the action:
The drug is administered as soon as possible.
And, of course,
sometimes the writer intentionally wishes to avoid calling attention to
the performer of the action (this is known as "institutional passive"), as in
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