Active or Passive?

When writing teachers talk about “active v passive” we are really talking about verbs.  Active voice in writing places the subject of the sentence as doing the action, while passive voice places the subject as receiving the action.

For example:

Active : Bob feeds his cat.  Passive : The cat is fed by Bob.

English teachers like myself love to warn new writers against the evils of passive voice, although there are times when passive voice is warranted and times when it is not.  Verbs in the passive voice have “to be” verbs helping them.   A writer may choose to use the passive voice in order to emphasize one thing over another. In the second example, the cat (rather than Bob) becomes the most important component of the sentence.  This example simply reflects the importance of varying sentence structures in complex writing scenarios.

According to Purdue University’s Online Writing Lag (OWL), “Active voice is used for most non-scientific writing. Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy. Even in scientific writing, too much use of passive voice can cloud the meaning of your sentences.”  This simply means that every time you write, there is a distinct purpose and audience, and every sentence’s structure should be considered in the composition process.  After some practice, verb use and subject-object placement becomes essential to establishing the desired message.

My advice? Always consider the forum.  Are you writing news? Narrative? A report? Certain genres require certain styles of writing, and whenever you go to write something you haven’t before, make sure you look at examples and seek out writing guides.


Posted on June 1, 2011, in Writing Styles. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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