The passive voice in essay writing is when we
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Passive Voice: When to Use It and When to Avoid It
What is passive voice?
In English, all sentences are in either “active” or “passive” voice:
Active: Werner Heisenberg formulated the uncertainty principle in 1927.
Passive: The uncertainty principle was formulated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927.
In an active sentence, the person or thing responsible for the action in the sentence comes first. In a passive sentence, the person or thing acted on comes first, and the actor is added at the end, introduced with the preposition “by.” The passive form of the verb is signaled by a form of “to be”: in the sentence above, “was formulated” is in passive voice while “formulated” is in active.
In a passive sentence, we often omit the actor completely:
The uncertainty principle was formulated in 1927.
When do I use passive voice?
In some sentences, passive voice can be perfectly acceptable. You might use it in the following cases:
The actor is unknown:
The cave paintings of Lascaux were made in the Upper Old Stone Age. [We don’t know who made them.]
The actor is irrelevant:
An experimental solar power plant will be built in the Australian desert. [We are not interested in who is building it.]
You want to be vague about who is responsible:
Mistakes were made. [Common in bureaucratic writing!]
You are talking about a general truth:
Rules are made to be broken. [By whomever, whenever.]
You want to emphasize the person or thing acted on. For example, it may be your main topic:
Insulin was first discovered in 1921 by researchers at the University of Toronto. It is still the only treatment available for diabetes.
You are writing in a scientific genre that traditionally relies on passive voice. Passive voice is often preferred in lab reports and scientific research papers, most notably in the Materials and Methods section:
The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid.
In these sentences you can count on your reader to know that you are the one who did the dissolving and the titrating. The passive voice places the emphasis on your experiment rather than on you.
Note: Over the past several years, there has been a movement within many science disciplines away from passive voice. Scientists often now prefer active voice in most parts of their published reports, even occasionally using the subject “we” in the Materials and Methods section. Check with your instructor or TA whether you can use the first person “I” or “we” in your lab reports to help avoid the passive.
To learn more about the use of passive voice in the sciences, visit our handout on writing in the sciences.
When should I avoid passive voice?
Passive sentences can get you into trouble in academic writing because they can be vague about who is responsible for the action:
Both Othello and Iago desire Desdemona. She Is courted. [Who courts Desdemona? Othello? Iago? Both of them?]
Academic writing often focuses on differences between the ideas of different researchers, or between your own ideas and those of the researchers you are discussing. Too many passive sentences can create confusion:
Research Has been done to discredit this theory. [Who did the research? You? Your professor? Another author?]
Some students use passive sentences to hide holes in their research:
The telephone Was invented in the nineteenth century. [I couldn’t find out who invented the telephone!]
Finally, passive sentences often sound wordy and indirect. They can make the reader work unnecessarily hard. And since they are usually longer than active sentences, passive sentences take up precious room in your paper:
Since the car was being driven by Michael at the time of the accident, the damages should be paid for by him.
Weeding out passive sentences
If you now use a lot of passive sentences, you may not be able to catch all of the problematic cases in your first draft. But you can still go back through your essay hunting specifically for passive sentences. At first, you may want to ask for help from a writing instructor. The grammar checker in your word processor can help spot passive sentences, though grammar checkers should always be used with extreme caution since they can easily mislead you. To spot passive sentences, look for a form of the verb to be in your sentence, with the actor either missing or introduced after the verb using the word “by”:
Poland Was invaded in 1939, thus initiating the Second World War.
Genetic information Is encoded by DNA.
The possibility of cold fusion Has been examined for many years.
Try turning each passive sentence you find into an active one. Start your new sentence with the actor. Sometimes you may find that need to do some extra research or thinking to figure out who the actor should be! You will likely find that your new sentence is stronger, shorter, and more precise:
Germany invaded Poland in 1939, thus initiating the Second World War.
DNA encodes genetic information.
Physicists have examined the possibility of cold fusion for many years.
The passive voice in essay writing is when we
In addition to leaving out the actor, passive voice also lets you manage the flow of information in a paragraph. This flow is usually described using the given-new distinction.
It works like this: as you begin each clause (read: sentence, more or less) there is some set of facts that are already present in the discourse. Perhaps they have already been mentioned. Perhaps they are clear from context (such as if you and I are outside and it is raining, then the rain is obvious to both of us). This information is called the “given.” However, in each clause you will probably want to say something that was not already obvious. This is called the “new.”
The given-new distinction is involved in a common pattern in English: clauses typically begin with given information and end with new information. It is not a rule. It does not always happen. But it is very common and sounds quite natural. When you read or listen, text that follows the given-new pattern flows better and is easier to process.
We do this naturally when we speak. However, beginning writers often get it wrong.
Do not take my word for it. Look for these patterns yourself — or their absence in prose that seems disjointed and awkward. (Reading the work of beginning writers is great for this.)
Now, finally, passive voice. Passive voice is one of many ways you can reorder the normal structure of the sentence. You do this when what would normally be the predicate is the given, and what would normally be the subject is the new (or if you would like to leave out the subject entirely).
For instance, let’s talk about my car. The other day my car was damaged in a hail storm. Yes. I was very upset and shaken by the whole ordeal, but I will struggle on.
Now, in that paragraph, my car is introduced early, and thus is a given topic. When I wanted to mention that it was damaged by hail, I used the passive voice, as hail is new information. Of course, if I insisted on avoiding the passive, I could have written this:
Let us talk about hail. The other day hail damaged my car…
But I wanted to talk about my car and its damage; I don’t care much about the hail.
There are other methods to reorder the given and new: such as inversions (“From around us came many cries of outrage.”), left dislocation (“About the man, well, I gave him the book.”), various clefts (“It was John who Mary kissed, not Bob.”), and so on.