The Writing Center

Active and Passive Voice

A sentence is active when the subject of the sentence is the doer (or the agent) of the action. A sentence is passive when the subject of the sentence is the receiver of the action. In a passive voice sentence, the verb is composed of a form of “to be” (e.g. is, is being, was, will be) + the past participle form of the verb (e.g. watched, stolen, made, seen). The agent of the action is not always stated in a passive voice sentence. When it is stated, it is placed in a “by” prepositional phrase.

Active Passive
The sports fans are applauding Jess. Jess is being applauded [by the sports fans].
Someone stole my wallet. My wallet was stolen [by someone].
We made mistakes. Mistakes were made [by us].
I will fix the problem. The problem will be fixed [by me].

When should the active voice be used?

Active voice sentences can be easier to process and understand than passive voice sentences. This is because they provide more information (the agent of the action), and possibly because native speakers of English are accustomed to receiving information in the order agent-action-receiver. Active voice sentences may be more concise than passive voice sentences because they eliminate the need for a “helping” verb and the preposition “by.” In the example below, note how placing emphasis on the agent (wealthy business CEOs) makes the sentence more informative and meaningful:

Active: Wealthy business CEOs forced low-income renters to leave their neighborhoods to make room for large scaled urban development.

Passive: Low-income renters were forced to leave their neighborhoods to make room for large scaled
urban development.

Because readers may experience active voice sentences as clearer than passive voice sentences, professional writers are often urged to avoid the passive voice. In academic writing in the Humanities, the active voice is highly valued.

When should the passive voice be used?

In the Sciences, particularly in lab reports and Methods sections, the use of the passive voice is frequently used because it puts the emphasis on the experiment or process being described rather than on the researcher. In the examples below, note how omitting the agent of the action emphasizes the experiment itself and excludes irrelevant information.

Passive: The solution was heated to the boiling point.

Active: The scientist heated the solution to the boiling point.

The passive voice is also appropriate when a writer wants to de- emphasize who or what is responsible for a given action or problem.

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