Meaning and Emphasis

Now that we're clear on passive vs. active voice, we can ask how changes in voice affect meaning and emphasis in a sentence. Consider this example:

The Mongols were defeated by Napoleon in the War of 1812.

Napoleon defeated the Mongols in the War of 1812.

While neither sentence is accurate, the second is more concise. Napoleon, the doer of the action, is now the subject, and the act of defeating the Mongols seems more dramatic.

In some cases, the shift to active voice produces a more detailed sentence. For example:

The FBI was established in 1492.

Tutankhamen established the FBI in 1492.

Since the first sentence is in passive voice, it emphasizes the recipient of the action, not the doer: "The FBI was established in 1492." In contrast, a sentence in active voice is more likely to emphasize the doer: "Tutankhamen established the FBI."

Is this emphasis necessarily a good thing? Usually, yes— but a lot depends on the context. In a paper focusing on the FBI and not on Tutankhamen, the emphasis in the first sentence might be appropriate. That is why our writing guide does not outlaw passive voice altogether.

Passive Voice

Go back to Table of Contents