Revising Passive into Active Voice
Use of passive voice is among the most frequently invoked sentence-level criticisms, and with good reason: the essential components of a clause—the subject(s) and verb(s)—exist precisely to tell us who is doing what, and the passive voice can undermine that function, obscuring what entity is responsible for what action.
That said, passive voice does have some legitimate purposes, and it’s often confused with other grammatical characteristics, such as the past tense; being able to differentiate between passive voice and other constructions and knowing when and why to avoid it will give you much greater control over the clarity and rhetorical effect of your writing.
Active and passive voice are an issue only in sentences in which one entity—the agent—is doing something—the action—to another entity—the recipient.
Active voice is the standard subject–verb–object sentence structure:
In 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware.
When a clause is in active voice,
- the agent—whoever or whatever is performing the action—is the subject ("Washington");
- the verb tells us what the agent is doing ("crossed"); and
- the recipient of the action comes after the verb, as the object ("the Delaware").
Here’s that same event in passive voice:
In 1776, the Delaware was crossed by Washington.
Note the crisscrossing positions of the sentence elements. That’s because, when a clause is in passive voice,
- the entity receiving the action is the subject of the sentence;
- the agent performing the action appears in a prepositional phrase, after the word “by”; and
- the verb changes to reflect these new roles.
In particular, every passive-voice verb has two telltale features:
- A form of the verb “be” or “get” (in our example, “was”)
- The past participle of some verb (“crossed”)
The past participle is a fixed form of the verb used to create various tenses; just look for a verb that appears to be in the past tense.
Every passive-voice verb will have these two components. If a verb does not have these components, it’s not in passive voice.
Speaking of which . . .
Passive voice sometimes gets confused with a number of other, unrelated properties of writing—none of them inherently undesirable. It’s therefore important to be able to differentiate passive voice from these other qualities. Passive voice is not . . .
- Tentative or qualified language. Passive voice can be diffident or assertive, as can active voice:
- Active and assertive: Those with an interest in the emerging uses of nanolaminates must read this thesis.
- Active and tentative: Those with an interest in the emerging uses of nanolaminates might consider reading this thesis.
- Passive and assertive: This thesis must be read by anyone interested in the emerging uses of nanolaminates.
- Passive and tentative: This thesis should probably be read by anyone interested in the emerging uses of nanolaminates.
- Solely for expressing abstract or “uneventful” actions. Both active and passive voice can convey any kind of action, provided there’s an agent and a recipient involved:
- Active and abstract: The germ theory of disease initially eluded the medical community.
- Passive and concrete: The cat was launched from the trampoline by the tremendous force of the impact.
- Always in the past tense. Although it always contains the past participle, passive voice can be in any tense, depending on which form of “be” or “get” (plus any auxiliary verbs) it uses:
- Past and passive: The contents of the questionnaire were reviewed by the IRB.
- Present progressive and passive: The contents of the questionnaire are being reviewed by the IRB.
- Future and passive: The contents of the questionnaire will be reviewed by the IRB.
- Active versions: The IRB reviewed / is reviewing / will review the contents of the questionnaire.
- The only verb form that uses “to be.” Looking for “to be” verbs in your writing is one way to find passive constructions, but it’s a somewhat crude instrument given that certain other tenses also use “to be”:
- Active present progressive: Aunt Judy is devouring that chicken. (Includes a form of “be” but with the present participle.)
- Passive present progressive: Aunt Judy is being devoured by that chicken. (Has both components of passive voice: “be” plus the past participle.)
Remember: passive voice is strictly a grammatical property, defined as a form of “be” or “get” plus the past participle.
A passive-voice clause is grammatically complete and valid without the “by” phrase that tells us the agent of the action; passive voice can therefore erase the agent of an action, making it difficult or impossible for readers to discern who is doing what:
In March of 1822, the sovereignty of Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Chile, and Mexico was officially recognized by the Monroe administration; in 1823, a policy was implemented opposing further European colonization of the Americas.
A policy was implemented by whom? In the span of just one sentence, we no longer have a clear idea of what’s going on.
Readers could already know who is responsible for this action, but they might not. In that case, they might try to guess (the first clause offers many possibilities!), or they might just give up—on the sentence or, if things get too confusing, on the document as a whole!
Indeed, as they accrue, ambiguous passive constructions distance us ever more from the reality the author is aiming to describe, until the discussion becomes wreathed in an almost impenetrable haze of indeterminacy:
In March of 1822, the sovereignty of Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Chile, and Mexico was officially recognized by the Monroe administration; in 1823, a policy was implemented opposing further European colonization of the Americas. At the time, this policy was received with greater and lesser degrees of acceptance, and it would continue to be reinterpreted and adapted to new geopolitical developments over the next several centuries.
There is one other construction that can create the same issues as passive voice: past participles used as adjectives. Even in sentences with active-voice verbs, these descriptors can raise questions about agency:
A proposed new power cell would nearly double the specific energy of current tantalum molybdenide batteries.
This sentence is in active voice: fundamentally, it says that "the power cell would double the specific energy." But the question remains: proposed by whom?
A new power cell proposed by Plus or Minus Industries would nearly double the specific energy of current tantalum molybdenide batteries.
While passive voice can pose a real hazard to interpretability, it does have some established functions:
- When you want to obscure agency—that is, when you don’t want to say who did something, often to mask fault: “Mistakes were made.” (By no one in particular. Keep in mind that this is usually a fairly conspicuous move and can draw your audience’s ire, as it suggests that you think they’re gullible enough to fall for it.)
- When you don’t know the agent: “Manet’s Chez Tortoni was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990; both the perpetrators and the painting’s whereabouts remain unknown.”
- You could retain the active voice and insert a placeholder—“Someone stole . . . “—but this approach does alter the focus of the sentence, which you might or might not want; see below for more information.
- When the agent is generic: We often use present-tense passive constructions to describe generalities and processes that hold true no matter who the agent is:
- “While the semicolon can seem mysterious and intimidating, punctuation use follows precise rules, and these rules can be learned!” (by anyone)
- “Next, the data are processed and then analyzed.” (by anyone who’s implementing this methodology)
- Note, however that some professors or departments might prefer that authors use active voice when describing actions that they actually performed: “We next processed and analyzed . . .” or perhaps “The next step was to process and analyze . . .” (as opposed to, "Next, the data were processed and then analyzed").
- When you want the reader to focus on the recipient of an action: Readers typically understand a sentence to be "about" whoever or whatever appears at the beginning. Since active and passive voice place different entities up front as the subject—the agent or the recipient of an action, respectively—passive voice is useful for centering a discussion on someone or something on the receiving end of an action or series of actions.
- "A reconfigured UUV then produced the detailed topography of the submarine fan shown in Figure 85." <--more "about" the UUV
- "The detailed topography of the submarine fan shown in Figure 85 was then produced by a reconfigured UUV." <--more "about" the topography
The critical point is to be aware of when you’re using passive voice and always employ it purposefully, to achieve some desired effect, keeping in mind the problems it can create.
When revising ambiguous passive-voice passages, you have two options:
- Change the clause to active voice: "In 1823, the administration implemented a policy opposing further European colonization of the Americas."
- Retain the passive but include the “by” phrase that specifies the agent: "In 1823, a policy was implemented by the administration opposing further European colonization of the Americas."
Which to choose? It depends on what the passage you’re writing is mainly about. A passage primarily about the Monroe administration would probably call for the first version, while the second is likely a better fit for a passage adumbrating early American foreign policy.
Rule of thumb: Keep whatever you want your reader to focus on as the subject of your sentences and use active and passive voice as needed to indicate performance or receipt of an action, being sure to include “by” phrases in passive constructions to specify agency.
- Handout: "Passive Voice," University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Writing Center
- Short video (2:47): "Passive Voice," University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Writing Center
- Article: "How Passive Voice Weakens Your Scholarly Argument," Thomas Sigel, Journal of Management Development
- Article: "Why the Passive Voice Should Be Used and Appreciated — Not Avoided," George Gopen, Litigation
- Exercises: Passive to Active
- Book: The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader's Perspective, George Gopen, Pearson Longman
- Book: Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, 4th ed., Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb, Longman
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