Examples. The passive voice is used frequently. (= we are interested in the passive voice, not in who uses it.) The house was built in 1654. (= we are interested.
Passive voice is used when the focus is on the action. It is not important or not known, however, who or what is performing the action. Example: My bike was.
Depending on the way in which you word a sentence, a verb can be either active or passive.
When the verb is active, the subject of the verb is doing the action, as in these examples:
|France||beat Brazil in the final.|
|More than 300 million people||speak Spanish.|
|Jack||will take the matter forward.|
When the verb is passive, the subject undergoes the action rather than doing it:
|Brazil||was beaten in the final.|
|Spanish||is spoken by more than 300 million people worldwide.|
|The matter||will be taken forward by Jack.|
Here, the sentences’ points of view have changed: Brazil, Spanish, and the matter have become the subjects of the passive verbs were beaten, is spoken, and will be taken. In the first example, you can see that the subject of the active verb (France) does not appear in the corresponding passive version of the sentence. In the other two passive examples, the former subjects of the active verbs (more than 300 million people; Jack) are now introduced with the word ‘by’.
The person or thing in a passive sentence that does or causes something is called the agent: more than 300 million people and Jack are the agents of the second and third passive examples.
These two different ways of using verbs are known as voices. In everyday writing, the active voice is much more common than the passive. The passive tends to be used in formal documents such as official reports or scientific papers, often where an action or situation is regarded as more significant than who or what did or caused it:
The results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
A fair grading system was found to be important to all students.
The passive is formed with tenses of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ and the past participle of the main verb. Here is a table showing the passive forms for most English verbs:
|present simple||am/are/is + past participle||He is taken to school by his mum.|
|present continuous||am/are/is being + past participle||They are beingbullied.|
|present perfect||have/has been + past participle||Have you been interviewed for many jobs?|
|past simple||was/were + past participle||We were told not to touch anything.|
|past continuous||was/were being + past participle||Our computers were being attacked by hackers.|
|past perfect||had been + past participle||His mother had been brought up in India.|
|future||will be + past participle||Arrangements will be made to move them to other locations.|
|future perfect||will have been + past participle||All the merchandise will have been shipped by tomorrow.|
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The use of active or passive voice is a fundamental distinction in English, and one that causes trouble for many writers – including native English speakers!
Growing up in American schools, students are often taught that they should avoid the passive voice because it is “weak.” However, the choice between active and passive is actually quite nuanced.
Depending on the ideas you are trying to express and the conventions of the discipline/journal in which you are writing, the passive voice can be an appropriate, sophisticated, and even preferable choice over the active voice. Nevertheless, the active voice is sometimes a far better choice, and you may use both in the same article depending on the context and content of your sentences and the section of your paper you are writing.
The following guidelines and examples should help you in choosing between active and passive voice.
In this very simple sentence, the active voice is the better choice. It is more concise (shorter), more direct, and stronger. The passive voice, in this case, is unnecessarily wordy and clunky.
However, there are many examples where we either cannot or do not want to emphasize the actor, particularly if there is an element of mystery involved:
In this case, the speaker may not/does not know who stole her car, and this use of the passive is perfectly appropriate.
The active alternative would be “Someone stole my car on Sunday night.” But this is a case where the speaker probably wants to emphasize the action itself rather than the perpetrator. She wants to emphasize that something bad happened to her.
You’ll notice something about the two passive examples above: both use a form of the verb “to be” – in this case, the past form “was” (“was chased,” “was stolen”).
This is called a “helping” or “auxiliary” verb because it helps to complete the sentence (you can’t say “My car stolen on Sunday night”). These verbs are not needed in active sentence constructions, which is one main reason why many people say that active sentences are stronger and more concise.
In this case, the authors want to emphasize the interviews – and how they were conducted – as an element of their research methodology. Therefore, the passive voice is an appropriate choice, although the active voice would not be incorrect.
In this case, the active options may be problematic for different reasons.
The first option is grammatically correct, but some researchers/writers and journals prefer to avoid the use of the first person. (Learn more about which person to use when writing.) Choosing the passive voice is an easy way to avoid having to make a decision about using the sometimes-questionable word “we.”
Active option 2 – which uses the third person (“the researchers”) – is grammatically correct but sounds a bit awkward. Again, as in Example 1, the authors of this article are emphasizing aspects of their methodology, one of which is their software choice. Thus, their use of the passive voice is acceptable and appropriate.
Again, in this case, the authors are emphasizing that their research was approved. This is an important piece of information, arguably more important than the entity that did the approving. Thus, the passive voice is justified.
Unlike the examples we have considered so far, in this case, the active voice is the better choice. The literature review section of a paper often seeks to delineate the most important contributions in the field, which makes actors/agents/authors important. In the example above, the active sentence reads much more clearly and concisely.
Thus, your use of the active vs. passive voice may depend on which section of your article you are writing. Each section has a different goal and set of emphases, and you can adjust your use of active vs. passive accordingly. You might choose to use the active voice in your conclusion if you want to emphasize the contributions, results, or accomplishments of your research.
In this case, the active voice is the stronger, preferable choice. It is cleaner, clearer, and more concise. It clearly states what the authors have contributed in their article. The passive option is unnecessarily wordy and clunky.
In summary, both the active and passive voices can be appropriate choices in scientific/academic writing. It is important to consider what you are trying to emphasize in a particular sentence or section of your paper.
It is easy to default to the passive voice in academic writing, and sometimes it really is the better choice. If you are undecided, try rephrasing the sentence in the active voice and asking yourself whether it changes the meaning of your sentence or simply makes your writing clearer or more concise.
What is a passive sentence? Why is passive voice bad? Discover the difference between active and passive voice with example sentences at Writing Explained.
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This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.
In a sentence using passive voice, the subject is acted upon; he or she receives the action expressed by the verb. The agent performing the action may appear in a "by the..." phrase or may be omitted.
The dog is acting upon the sentence subject (the boy), meaning it uses the passive voice.
This example sentence includes the passive voice because the subject (research) is being acted upon (presented) by another person (Pooja).
This is an example of the passive voice.
The subject of the passive voice sentence performs the action expressed in the verb in this example.
Reasons to Generally Avoid Passive Voice
Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences, as in the last example above. Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting. In scientific writing, however, passive voice is more readily accepted since using it allows one to write without using personal pronouns or the names of particular researchers as the subjects of sentences (see the third example above). This practice helps to create the appearance of an objective, fact-based discourse because writers can present research and conclusions without attributing them to particular agents. Instead, the writing appears to convey information that is not limited or biased by individual perspectives or personal interests.
Recognizing Passive Voice
You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice. Another way to recognize passive-voice sentences is that they may include a "by the..." phrase after the verb; the agent performing the action, if named, is the object of the preposition in this phrase.
You can recognize passive voice because the verb phrase will include a form of be (was, am, are, been, is). Don't assume that just because there is a form of 'be' that the sentence is passive, however. Sometimes a prepositional phrase like "by the" in the sentences above indicates that the action is performed on the subject, and that the sentence is passive.
Read on to learn how to form the active and passive voices, when using the The above examples show some formal uses of the passive voice, but some.