What is Passive Voice?

Passive voice appears often in undergraduate papers, and though it has its uses (as I shall explain later), it generally leads to wordiness and vagueness. Neither of these is a desirable outcome, so it's usually best to rewrite instances of passive voice. But doing so is not always easy, and I'd like to offer some pointers.

Before I get too far in, let me briefly explain the difference between passive and active voice. A sentence in active voice will usually feature a subject that performs an action, a verb that describes the action, and an object that receives the action. Consider this example:

Grandpa carved the turkey.

Grandpa is the subject, carved is the active verb, and turkey is the object. Now, notice what happens when I change the sentence to passive voice:

The turkey was carved by Grandpa.

Here, the subject of the sentence is turkey, the passive verb is was carved, and Grandpa is the object of a prepositional phrase. What makes this sentence passive is that the subject, turkey, did not perform the action; instead, turkey is what was carved.

While both versions contain the same facts, the second is wordier and less forceful. This is true of most sentences in passive voice. Sentences in active voice gain force and achieve concision by focusing on the doer.

When you attempt to write in active voice, remember: The doer of the action is usually the subject. And as you switch from passive to active voice, be prepared to identify the doer. Consider this example:

The turkey was carved.

Reading this version, nobody can tell who carved the turkey. But you as the writer can provide this missing information ("Grandpa") when you recast the sentence in the active voice.

If you don't provide that information, your audience may suspect that you are deliberately concealing it. Practitioners of passive voice are often guilty of shielding a miscreant or dodging responsibility for their own actions: as if by magic, they make the doer disappear. No wonder so many readers distrust them.

Passive Voice

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