Passive voice: A Deadly Sin of Essay Writing

What is passive voice?

Passive voice is when the noun gets promoted to the subject of the sentence. That is, the noun is being that is being acted upon (by a verb) is made the subject of the sentence.

E.g. Passive voice

After dinner, the cake was eaten.

Noun (being acted upon) = The Cake
Verb: eaten
Subject = ???

Who is doing the eating? This is what makes this sentence passive, as it has become vague. Active voice however, is direct and clear.

Academic writing usually focuses on contrasting ideas from different theorists or researchers; therefore, the over use of passive voice can become confusing.

E.g. Passive Voice:

Research has been done to discredit this theory.

What theory? Who did the research?

Passive sentences are also usually wordy and indirect, making it difficult for the reader to interpret your writing. Additionally, because passive sentences are usually more wordy they take up more of your word count.


What is active voice?

In an active voice sentence, the thing performing the action (the verb) is the subject, not the noun.

e.g. Active Voice

The child ate cake after dinner

You need to let the reader know who is doing what. When reading your sentence back, if you find there is some information missing that probably means you need to activate it.


Why should I use it?

Active voice helps to create clear, concise, and direct sentences. It eliminates doubt within your writing and forces you to use verbs, adding character and strength to your writing.

Sometimes passive voice can create awkward sentences. Also, the overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can result in it reading as flat and uninteresting.


How do i use it?

Definition Refresher

Before we look at how to activate a sentence, let us quickly refresh our memories of some basic terms.

Noun: a word that refers to a person, place, thing, event, substance, or quality.

Verb: A doing word

Subject: the thing that is being discussed, considered, or studied.

How to activate

To activate a sentence, determine the subject and the verb and reorder your sentence. Sometimes, just by doing this you can activate your sentence.  By doing this, you may find that your sentence needs additional information for it to make sense; which is usually a good sign as it means your old sentence was too vague.

Example 1

Passive: The baseball was hit hard
Active: John hit the baseball hard

Example 2

Passive: My favourite dish was broken by John
Active: John broke my favourite dish

Example 3

Passive: My beach towel was taken
Active: The thief took my beach towel


How do I recognise a passive sentence?

In a passive-voice sentence the verb will (almost, with some exceptions) always include a variation of the word ‘be’ (e.g. am, is, was, were, are or been). Another type of passive-voice sentence may include a “by the…” phrase after the verb.


 Sometimes it is ok to use passive voice

This can include:

When the subject is unknown:
e.g. Graffiti was found the next morning
We do not have information on who did the graffiti

The subject is irrelevant:
e.g. Coal was mined from a pit in the Hunter Valley
We do not care which company did the mining

You want to be vague about who the subject was:
e.g. Shortcuts were taken
We do not want to assign responsibility/blame to any particular person (common in political writing)

You are making a generalisation
e.g. Rules are made to be broken
We are not talking about anybody specifically

You wish to place emphasis on the subject
e.g. The Newcastle Knights won the NRL grand final in 1997 at Energy Australia Stadium.

You are writing scientifically
e.g. The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid.
Lab reports or research articles usually prefer passive voice (usually only in methods sections) as it places emphasis on the experiment and not on the researcher.


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