Active Voice FAQ

You may have heard that you should write in the active voice and avoid passive sentences, but do you know what that means? If not, these answers to some frequently asked questions on the subject (pun intended) might help straighten it out for you.

What is active voice?

When a sentence is in active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one doing the work of the verb. Perhaps the simplest example of this would be, "I love you." In this sentence the person speaking, the, "I," is the one doing the loving.

In order to change "I love you," into a passive sentence and make "you" the focus of the sentence, it isn't enough just to change the word order. That would give us, "You love I (or me.)" This changes the meaning as well. Now "you" is the one doing the loving. In order to make "you" the focus of the sentence and the recipient of the love, we would have to say, "You are loved by me."

Why is active voice better than passive voice?

As the sentence, "You are loved by me," shows, the passive voice is often awkward, even in simple sentences. Hardly surprising then that as a sentence becomes more complex, introducing passive voice makes it more likely your reader will struggle to understand. Or, to put that in the passive voice, "As its complexity is increased, the likelihood of your sentence being understood is decreased." If your aim is clear and concise writing, stick to the active voice as much as possible.

When shouldn't I use active voice?

There are, of course, times when the use of passive voice is actually simpler and more direct than the active voice. There are also times when it is the only option available. There are three instances when you should use the passive voice:

  1. When the actor of the verb is unknown-If the recipient of the action is an inanimate object or an idea, and the actor is unknown, use the passive voice. Common examples of this would be saying, "The window was broken," or "Her purse was stolen" or "The rumor was started two weeks ago." We know what happened, and although we could use the active voice and say, "The window broke," or "Her purse disappeared" or "The rumor began two weeks ago," these sentences would be conveying an ability to act where none exists.
  2. When the action is more important than the actor-Particularly in the methodology section of scientific writing, sometimes what was done is more important to the reader than who did it. So, for example, you might write, "The samples were stored at room temperature for a period of 48 hours before being analyzed further," rather than saying, "We stored the samples at room temperature for 48 hours before we analyzed them further."
  3. When the recipient of the action is the main topic-The topic of the sentence should appear at its beginning, and in a paragraph of sentences all dealing with the same topic, sometimes this might mean using the passive voice to retain the topic focus of the paragraph. So, for example, if coal is the topic of your paragraph, you might have the following short sentences. "Coal is a fossil fuel. It has provided heat and light for centuries. Miners dig it out of the ground, and it is transported to power stations by train." The first clause of the third sentence, "Miners dig it out of the ground," breaks the flow of the paragraph, moving the reader's focus away from the coal, only to have it return in the next clause. In this case, a passive sentence would make the whole more readable. "Coal is a fossil fuel. It has provided heat and light for centuries. It is dug out of the ground by miners, and it is transported to power stations by train."

If none of these three special cases fits, then you should use the active voice.

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