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Active versus passive voice

When writing a sentence in the active voice, the person or thing doing the action in the sentence (i.e., the subject) is named and appears before the verb.  When writing in the passive voice, the object of the sentence appears first in the sentence and the subject often isn’t named. For example:
  1. The essays were marked. (Passive)
  2. The instructor marked the essays. (Active)
  3. Participants were interviewed to gather data. (Passive)
  4. Researchers interviewed participants to gather data. (Active)

While writing in the passive voice may be appropriate in some instances (see “When do I use passive voice?” in Passive Voice: When to Use It and When to Avoid It), instructors at RRU usually prefer the active voice because it is more specific and direct than the passive voice.

Detecting passive voice

You may have noticed that there’s a pattern in the form of the verb in passive sentences, and  that pattern can help you detect passive voice. Check the primary verb in your sentence, and if there’s a form of “be” (e.g., am, is, are, was, were) and a past tense verb, the sentence may be passive. In sentences 1 and 3 above, “were marked” and “were interviewed” are both clues to the sentences’ passive construction.

Microsoft Word will also help you detect passive voice. Please visit Grammar and Style Check to access links that will take you to instructions of how to access MS Word’s grammar and style check options. Once you have accessed those options, click the button next to “Passive sentences”. See below for a screen shot:


Shifting to active voice

To move a sentence into the active voice, name the subject of the sentence before the verb. If the subject is you, you can use the first person “I” in your academic writing unless you've been instructed to do otherwise. Please see Can I use the first person voice in my academic writing? for more information. For example:

  1. Training was conducted and participants were evaluated. (Passive)
  2. I trained and evaluated the participants. (Active)

For more information, please see "Active versus Passive Voice" (YouTube video), and please contact the Writing Centre if you have any questions about this tip or any other writing-related matter.

Theresa Bell
Writing centre coordinator

(Originally published in Crossroads September 30, 2015; updated May 29, 2017)

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