Passive Voice: 3 Things You Need to Know for a Better Essay

I’m sure you’ve heard the terms active voice and passive voice and have probably even heard that you should usually write in active voice (and avoid passive voice).

But what does that mean? And why should you even care? Let me explain.

Here are three things you need to know about passive voice in order to write a better essay.

What the Heck Are Active and Passive Voice, Anyway?

When you write in active voice, the subject is doing something. When you write in passive voice, the object of the sentence (what is being acted upon) becomes the subject.

Yeah, I know. Confusing. That’s why lots of people aren’t big fans of grammar.

passive voice
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Here’s an example to help clarify.

Active voice: Liam bought a new cell phone.

Here, “Liam” is the subject. He is the person doing something in the sentence (buying a new cell phone). “A new cell phone” is the object and is having something being done to it (the cell phone is being purchased).

Passive voice: A new cell phone was bought by Liam.

Here, the object, “a new cell phone,” has become the subject. Writing in passive voice makes this sentence awkward, and it’s easy to see why writing in active voice is generally preferred.

If this still doesn’t completely clarify the issue, check out this blog post on how to avoid writing in passive voice.

Now that you have a better sense of what passive and active voice are, let’s move on to those things you need to know in order to write a better essay.

Passive Voice: 3 Things You Need to Know for a Better Essay

passive voice

You don’t always have to avoid passive voice. It has its place (more about that later), but it is important that you understand how and where you should (or shouldn’t) use it.

Let’s look at three important points.

#1 Passive voice can cause confusion

The sentence construction of passive voice can often leave readers confused and leave them wondering the exact meaning of your writing.

Here’s an example in passive voice:

In the meeting between students and the college president, a revised process for creating new on-campus student organizations was developed.

Sure, you know that a process was revised, but this sentence doesn’t tell you who revised the process. The students? The president? Both the students and the president together?

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Let’s revise this sentence to active voice to eliminate any confusion:

In a recent meeting, the students and college president worked together to revise the process for creating new on-campus student organizations.

Not only is this sentence more specific, but it’s also a lot easier to read.

#2 Passive voice can lead to weak writing

Ever write a sentence like one of these?

  • A lot of people were harmed.
  • The elderly were cheated.
  • Animals were treated poorly.

If you have, then you’re guilty of not only writing in passive voice, but also writing a generalized and weak sentence.

These types of sentences tell your readers very little. Your professor will think you haven’t done your research and that you’re simply writing these broad statements because you don’t have the facts to back them up.

In order to strengthen your writing, revise statements to active voice and add specific details.

Check out these revisions:

  • Contaminated meat sickened 23 people.
  • Last year, company XYZ stole more than $1 million from the elderly in Florida.
  • Police found eight dogs in unsafe living conditions.

See? Don’t these sentences sound better? By writing in active voice, not only are the subjects of the sentences doing something, but they’re also specific subjects that demonstrate you have done your homework!

#3 Sometimes it’s okay to use passive voice

passive voice
“Enthusiasm Uncurbed” by David Goehring, (CC BY 2.0)

I’ve been writing about why you shouldn’t use passive voice, but technically, it is not grammatically incorrect. Your teachers won’t mark you down for incorrect grammar, but you might lose some style points.

Remember, active and passive voice are style issues. There are times when passive voice is a better option.

Here are four instances where passive voice can actually strengthen your writing.

1. If you don’t know the subject:

A backpack was left in the library. (The person who left the backpack is unknown.)

2. If the subject is irrelevant or not necessary for readers to know:

A new dorm is being built on campus. (If this sentence is written in a publication for students, it’s not necessary for students to know the name of the construction company building the dorm.)

3. If you want to be general or vague about the subject:

Three computers were stolen from the lab. (The police may not want to release the names of the person(s) who stole the computers.)

4. If you’re writing certain scientific reports:

Participants were asked to complete a series of five agility tests. (Some scientific reports prefer passive voice when describing research methods.)

In all of these cases, it makes sense to write in passive voice. The sentences are still clear, specific, and effective.

You Gotta Have Style
© 1951 John E. Reed (CC0 1.0, PD-PRE1978)

As we’ve learned, passive voice isn’t grammatically incorrect—it’s a matter of style.

Now that you’ve learned when you should and shouldn’t use passive voice, take the time to make sure your paper follows these other style guidelines:

Still wondering if you’ve used passive and active voice correctly? Need to know if your paper has style? Send it our way for some expert advice from a Kibin editor!

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