Active Vs. Passive Voice: Writing Good Sentences Improves Essays

Active Vs. Passive Voice: Writing Good Sentences Improves Essays

What are passive and active voice and what does it matter? How can paying attention to voice improve one's essay?


Students are often encouraged to write in the active voice in essays. There are several reasons for this. First of all, writing in an active voice usually makes an essay seem more authoritative and makes the author seem more sure of himself. Writing this way also takes the attention away from the subject, which is not always a good strategy. While there are times to use the passive voice, it is best to use the active voice whenever possible.
Changing Passive Voice to Active
It's relatively easy to change sentences written in passive to active. Here are some sentences written in passive voice:
• The essay was written by Jane.
• The mail was delivered to our front door.
• My car was bought by a nice young man who paid in cash.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these sentences. They are complete sentences that contain all the elements that make a sentence. However, there are better ways to write these sentences, ways that are more direct and to the point. Here are the same sentences written in the active voice:
• Jane wrote the essay.
• The mailman delivered the mail to our front door.
• A nice young man paid cash when he bought my car.
Obviously, there are other ways these sentences can be rewritten, but notice that the ones written in active voice make the sentences seem stronger. The subjects are performing the action in the active sentences (and thus written in active voice). When a sentence is written in passive voice, the person performing the action seems less important. Most of the time writers will want to write in active voice. However, there are rare (but necessary) occasions when the passive voice is the best choice.
When to Use the Passive Voice in a Sentence
When is it okay for a writer to use the passive voice? Sometimes the "actor" of the action is not as important as the action that was performed; in that case, the active voice is sometimes a better choice.
• Students were forced to take a test they felt ill-prepared for.
• Certain medications are used to treat depression.
In these instances, the passive voice is preferred. For example, in the first instance, it doesn't matter who forced the students to take the test; what matters is that they were forced. In the second sentence, it doesn't matter who takes the medication but that there are particular medications that are being referred to.
Scientific writing also often demands use of the passive voice. For example, according to University of Arizona's Scientific Writing Booklet, lab reports often use the passive voice because "the actor is not really important but the process or principle being described is of ultimate importance."
That said, whenever possible, a writer should use active voice.
Strong Essays Earn Good Grades
While there are many ways a writer can strengthen her essay, changing sentences from passive to active voice is a great way to start. Using the active voice makes essays seem more authoritative and to the point. And well-written, authoritative essays usually earn better grades.


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