March 29, 2020
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Active and Passive voice are used in different
types of writing for different types of effects and sentence structure. Paying attention to the voice you’re using
can massively alter the way your message is received. Let’s start with the basics. Let’s say you saw your friend Jill throw a ball. You could say Here, the grammatical subject of the sentence,
Jill, performs the action described by the verb “throw”. This is an example of Active voice. Passive voice is used when the grammatical
subject of the sentence is being acted upon by another object that may or may not be defined. Now, let’s try making the ball the grammatical
subject of the sentence. Here, the thing acted upon is the subject
of the sentence. This is an example of Passive voice. As you can see, both sentences make sense
for their own specific situations and both are grammatically correct. In some disciplines, passive voice is often
preferred. Some scientific disciplines prefer passive
voice because it puts emphasis on what was done rather than who did it. For example, one could say: In this situation, it doesn’t really matter
who did the measuring, so we leave the actor out of the sentence. Here’s another example of the benefit of
passive voice: In this case, the subject is being emphasized
rather than the actor, which is not relevant to the purpose of the sentence, and is left
out. If both are correct, how do you know which
one to use? You may have heard that you should use active
voice—there is a common misconception that active voice is always the preferred option,
and should be used whenever possible; however, while active voice can be more direct, both
styles can be useful depending on your situation. For instance, “Miguel’s phone was stolen.” If the actor performing the action is irrelevant
or unknown, you can use passive voice to put emphasis on the thing acted upon. We don’t know who committed the action,
so we use passive voice to either leave the actor for the end of the sentence, or leave
it out of the sentence completely. There are other situations that benefit from
the use of active voice. For example, If the actor performing the action is important
and known, you can use active voice. If you were upset at Jason, you would want
to make him the grammatical subject of the sentence. I know I would. Active voice is often a good choice for sentence
structure, as passive voice can come off as verbose or wordy at times. Active voice can also be more concise and
direct; however, that doesn’t mean it’s always the best choice. There are many situations where passive voice
works just as well, or better than active voice, as it can shift emphasis away from
the actor. Be careful that the style you use is appropriate
and does not misplace emphasis. The overuse of passive voice can make sentences
muddled and unclear. Here’s an example of excessive passive voice:
“A recommendation was made by the professor that their textbooks be reviewed by the students
before the exam, which has been scheduled for Friday by him.” That was a mouthful. As you can tell, the excessive passive voice
becomes very distracting. Now let’s try using active voice: “The
professor recommended that the students review their textbooks before the exam, which he
has scheduled for Friday.” The active voice version was much more direct
and clear, making it sound more natural. There is not a clear rule for which structure
is more correct. Simply choose the structure preferred by your
discipline that best fits the focus and intention of the sentence, accounting for the relevant
subject, the clarity of the sentence, the context of the writing, and the preferences
of your instructor. And the best way to learn is through practice. If you’re a Texas A&M student and you ever
need help, make an appointment with the University Writing Center and we’ll help you out however we can.

David Frank