Active vs. passive voice — How to tell the difference

My students have been struggling with using active voice in their writing. For some reason, they have learned along the way that passive voice sounds more “grown up” or academic.

This may have been true at one time, but in the 21st century, using active voice in academic research writing is not only appropriate, it is preferable, at least if you follow APA Style (6th edition, p. 77). 

Students who never learned grammar struggle to identify the difference between passive and active voice.

One way to figure out if it is passive or active voice is to ask “Who dunnit?” In passive voice, it is a mystery. We never know who did the action.

In active voice, there’s no mystery. The person, people, animal(s) or things that did the action are always identifiable.

For example:

Example #1: “The man was murdered.”

Question: By whom? (“Who dunnit”?)

Answer: We have no idea. (Mystery).

Voice: Passive.

Compare this to:

Example #2: “Professor Moriarty murdered the man.”

Question: Who dunnit?”

Answer: Professor Moriarty. (No mystery here. The sentence makes it clear.)

Voice: Active.

Sometimes, using the passive voice can be construed as sounding snotty or superior. An example would be, “If you would clean up your messy desk, it would be appreciated.”

Who would appreciate it, exactly?

When I hear the passive voice used in this way, it drives me up the wall. If I don’t know who’s going to appreciate the effort I would go to, what motivation do I have to invest my time and energy into cleaning up the desk?

A kinder, gentler way to say the same thing is, “I would really appreciate it if you would clean up your desk. We have company coming over and I know they’re going to want a tour of the house. Would take a few minutes to tidy up your work area, please?”

Suddenly, I feel motivated to clean the desk. I know who appreciates it and I know why I am being asked. Let the tidying begin!

An example I see frequently from students is, “It is appreciated”, or some variation thereof. An example is, “Dear Dr. Eaton, if you would read over my draft and give me some feedback, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Sounds a bit snotty, don’t you think?

I am often tempted to reply, “Who would appreciate it, exactly?”

In case you’re wondering, I have never actually replied in this way. I simply agree to review their draft. I understand that what they really mean when they use the passive voice in this way is “I appreciate it” or “I would appreciate it.” I can see they are trying to be polite and professional and that matters. But really, if you appreciate something, you can just say it!

Using the active voice makes your meaning clear. You are communicating in a more straight forward way and you sound more confident.

When you use the active voice, your reader appreciates it very much.

Reference:

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. (2010).  (Sixth ed.). Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.

 

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