The Catholic University of America

Active Versus Passive Voice

One of the most common problems encountered by writers is the use of passive rather than active voice. Before discussing the appropriate use of each voice, however, one must define active versus passive voice. When you write a sentence using the active voice, the subject of the sentence commits the action; when you write a sentence in the passive voice, the action is committed before the subject is identified. In other words, in active voice, the emphasis is on the subject doing something, while in the passive voice, the emphasis is on what is being done to the subject. 

Each voice is appropriate to different situations. However, the active voice is usually strong and direct, whereas the passive voice is often clumsy and indefinite. Students trying to strengthen and clarify their style should watch for overuse of the passive voice, because it is often confusing and indirect.

Recognizing Active and Passive Voice

A sentence uses the active voice when:

  • The subject of the sentence is the doer: "Jane tossed the ball to Ron." (Who tossed the ball? Jane did.)
  • The attribute of the subject is directly stated: "This book is excellent." (What is excellent? The book.)

A sentence uses the passive voice when:

  • The "doer" of the action is not mentioned: "The ball was tossed to Ron." (Who tossed the ball?)
  • The subject of the sentence is acted upon: "The ball was tossed." (The subject is "the ball," but something is being done to the ball rather than the ball doing something.)
  • The "doer" of the action is mentioned by is not the focus of the sentence: "The ball was tossed to Ron by Jane." (Jane threw the ball, but as the sentence is written, the focus is on the ball, not Jane.)

Passive voice phrases commonly overused in academic papers include:

  • "There is ________."
  • In thesis statements: "X can be seen/understood as y."
  • In conclusions: "It has been demonstrated/shown that _______."

When the Passive is Appropriate (adapted from Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman):

There are some advantages to the passive voice. The passive voice may be appropriate:

  • When the focus is on what is being done to something instead of by something. ("Jesus was whipped by the Roman guards." This puts the emphasis on Jesus rather than the guards.)
  • When the doer is not of interest. ("The thief was caught." Here the emphasis in on the thief, not the person or persons who caught him, which is either not important or implied. Here, for instance, the reader can induce that police caught the thief.)
  • When the writer wishes to avoid using the first-person singular pronoun. ("I," "me," or "my.")
  • In order to deflect responsibility or conceal information. (This is appropriate when you need to conceal a piece of information or tell a "half-truth": "Your car was totaled yesterday" vs. "I wrecked your car.")
  • In order to vary sentence structure. (Writing that is entirely in active voice can seem forcible. Incorporate the passive voice but with tact and only occasionally.)

Recognizing how the active voice can strengthen style and meaning:

"The man is drunk" vs. "he drank too much."

  • "History was transformed by this crucial event" vs. "This event transformed history."
  • "It will be demonstrated that Emily Dickenson had a romantic attraction toward death" vs. "Emily Dickenson's poetry demonstrates the author's romantic attraction toward death."

This page appears courtesy of Brooks Lampe.