Active and passive voice
The active or passive voice is used to alter the emphasis within a sentence. A writer's use of a particular voice may alter how the message of the sentence is received by the reader. Voice is the relationship between a verb and its accompanying subject and object.
Active voice: Joe slapped the boy.
Passive voice: The boy was slapped by Joe
Both the sentences are saying the same thing and the meaning is the same, but the expression is different. In both sentences, the action is 'slapped'. The basic verb is 'slap'. The subject is the person/thing/animal that carries out the action. In the above sentences, 'Joe' performs the action. The receiver is the person/thing/animal that receives the action. In these sentences, 'the boy' receives the 'slap'.
What is the major difference between the active and passive voice?
In the active voice, the focus is on the subject and in the passive voice, the focus is on the receiver. In the passive voice, the verb 'to be' (was) is used to show that 'the boy' is the receiver.
Which voice should I use in my writing?
The active voice makes sentences clearer, more direct, and more concise.
Active voice: Joe found a relationship between stress and high blood pressure.
In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon.
Passive voice: The relationship between stress and high blood pressure was found in the study conducted by Joe.
In this case, although the passive voice is grammatically correct, it does not have the same impact or clarity as to the active voice. Readers might find it unnatural or clumsy. As a result, the writing might be difficult to read. The passive voice also tends to use more words than the active voice. Therefore, switching sentences from the passive to the active voice might help reduce the word count of an assignment.
The voice you use can make a big difference in your writing. The active voice can often add clarity, but occasionally the passive voice might be the best option.
When to use the passive voice?
- To focus on the receiver (the object/action)
For example, there is a university near your home, and the builders have recently renovated it. You want to focus on the 'renovation' (passive voice) and not the 'builders' (active voice).
Passive voice: The university has been renovated.If the writer wants the reader to focus on the bacteria in the sentence below, the writer would use the passive voice. Using the passive voice in the sentence below would change the focus and make it clearer.
rather than Active voice: Builders have renovated the university.
Passive voice: The Bacillus subtilis were stored in a test tube for one year.
Note: Here the focus is on the bacteria Active voice: We stored the Bacillus subtilis in a test tube for one year.
Note: Here the focus is on the performer of the action and you might not want this in a methods section.
- The agent (performer of the action) is unknown
For example, "Somebody stole my book yesterday". Here we do not know who stole the book. The agent is unknown. Therefore, it would be better expressed as follows: "My book was stolen yesterday".
- It is obvious who the agent (performer of the action) is
- In the sentence "Sarah found out that she was given a lower increment (by her employer) compared to her other colleagues", it is obvious that the agent is the employer.
- In the sentence, "There are over 5,000 adults diagnosed (by doctors) with diabetes each year in New Zealand", it is obvious that the agent is the 'doctors'.
- Sarah found out that she was given a lower increment compared to her other colleagues.
- There are over 5,000 adults diagnosed with diabetes each year in New Zealand.
- The agent (performer of the action) has been mentioned and you want to develop the topic
This refers to when you have two or more sentences that talk about the same topic.
For example, "The Fellowship of the Ring is a fabulous movie. Peter Jackson directed it".
Here 'it' refers to The Fellowship of the Ring.
To make the second sentence clearer and flow better, the passive voice could be used.
"The Fellowship of the Ring is a fabulous movie. It was directed by Peter Jackson".
How to spot a passive voice?
- The passive voice is formed using auxiliary verb "be" (e.g. am, is, are, was, were, being, been).
Note: The passive voice uses the same tenses as the active voice.
Example:Active voice: The actress is beautiful.For further information and examples, see:
Passive voice: She is a beautiful actress.
- The subject if any comes at the end of the sentence.
How to change passive voice to active voice?
Identify the subject and bring the subject to the front and cut out unnecessary words.
Passive voice: A report about dementia was written by Joe.
Active voice: Joe wrote a report about his grandmother's dementia.
Passive voice: It was found by researchers that the risk of liver cancer may be reduced by regularly drinking coffee.
Active voice: Researchers found that regularly drinking coffee may reduce the risk of liver cancer.
Active voice: Regularly drinking coffee may reduce the risk of liver cancer (here it is obvious that the agent is 'researchers').
Combining the active and passive voice
Write using the active voice when possible but include the passive voice when necessary based on the guidelines provided earlier. Take the time to choose the voice that fits best as it helps establish the importance of certain terms. Here is an example of a short paragraph that uses the active and passive voice to make the paragraph livelier and more interesting.
Artificial intelligence is used (passive) widely in the manufacturing industry. It allows (active) organisations to reduce cost on labour and to ensure quality. Many organisations employ (active) robots, and some companies are robotised to run (active) by themselves. Artificial intelligence is being used (passive) today by Coke and Pepsi to ...
If you intend to only use the active voice, the sentences would be written as:
The manufacturing industry is widely using artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence allows organisations to reduce cost on labour and to ensure quality. Many organisations employ robots, and some companies are robotised to run by themselves. Coke and Pepsi use artificial intelligence in their organisations to …