Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Helpnest Feature #5 The active voice versus the passive voice

(Posted by Andrea Duff from the University of South Australia on behalf of Associate Professor Linda Bergmann from Purdue University)

'Active' and 'Passive' in writing refer to neither tense nor tone, but to voice.

The active voice sentence order is subject-verb-objective (or complement).  The passive voice order reverses this: object, a tense of the verb "to be" with the past participle of the sentence verb and then "by [the subject]."   The subject can often be dropped.

Here's an example:


Active:  The dog [subject] bit the boy [object].  
Passive:  The boy [object] was bitten by the dog [subject].  or   The boy [object] was bitten.

In the use of 'objective' versus 'subjective' writing, you can use either voice to achieve either goal.

The objective/subjective connection comes in when people are writing reports in which the observer is expected to appear impartial because the passive voice allows you to drop the use of  'I' (or hide the 'I' or other actor).

Using the example above, you can use the passive voice to hide the culprit (dog) which can be useful at times :-).  Alternatively, you can use it to suggest that the observation, not the observer, is the important information.

On the other hand, the active voice generally produces greater clarity, particularly in sentences with several modifying phrases and/or clauses.

I've consciously chosen to use 'you' in many of the sentences above, in order to avoid using the passive or using 'one' as the subject.  ('One' can sound pretentious in American English, although perhaps not in other Englishes.)

In my opinion, the best discussion of these issues can be found in Williams' Style: Ten Lessons Pearson/Longman.


Visit the Owl, Possum (and Kiwi) Helpnest to post your question


Reeta said...

Hi mate,
This is really interesting active voice.

Julia Miller said...

Thanks Linda.
Another thing we have in English, which seems strange to speakers of other languages, is the 'middle voice', with ergative verbs. These verbs can be both active and passive. For example, we can say 'They opened the door', 'The door was opened', or 'The door opened' - the last example is not active or passive, but in between, as though the door opened by itself! Some other languages do this by using a reflexive verb. In French, for instance, you could say 'La porte s'est ouverte'.
Not every verb in English can do this, but it's important to know about such verbs in order to sound more like a native speaker. I have made a list, compiled from an older version of Collins Cobuild (1996) and 'The Grammar Book' by Celce-Murcia and Larssen-Freeman. I'll paste them here: accelerate, accumulate, adjust, age, amalgamate, assimilate, average out, awake, bake, balance, beat, begin, belch out, bend, blacken, blare, blister, blow, blow up, blur, boil, boil away, boil down, boil down to, bond, break, break off, break up, brighten, bruise, buckle, budge, build up, bulk up, bulk out, burn, burn down, burn up, burst, capsize, catapult, centre, change, cheer up, clear, click, clink, clip, clog up, close, close up, close down, coil, combine, commence, compress, conflate, conflict, connect, contort, contract, contribute, convene, convert, convulse, cook, cool, condense, co-ordinate, correlate, crack, crash, crash land, crease, crisp, crumple up, crystallise, curl, darken, decompose, decrease, deepen, deflate, demobilise, derail, derive, detach, develop, devolve, dig, dilute, dim, diminish
disband, disengagem, disperse, dissipate, dissolve, divide, dock, double, double-park, drain, dress up, dribble, drip, drive, drop, drown, dry off, dry out, dry up, ease, edge, emanate, empty, end, engage, enrol, evaporate, even out, expand, fade, fasten, fatten, fill, finish, flatten, float, flutter, focus, fold up, form, fray, freak (out), funnel, fuse, get, graze, grill, group, grow, grow out, gush, halt, hang, harden, heal, hush, ignite, inch, incline, increase, industrialise, inflate, integrate, interlink, interlock, interweave, jam, jerk, kick off, knot, land, leak, lengthen, lessen, lighten, line up, liven up, lower, march, marinate, mark(=stain), marry, mass, match, match up, meet (with), melt, mesh, mist (over), mix, move, move along, multiply, muster, mutate, narrow, naturalise, navigate, nestle, nose, open, open up, open out, operate, organise, originate, ossify, overheat, pair off, pair up, pan, parachute, pass, peel, percolate, petrify, pile up, play, plop, plunge, pour, prick up, puff, put up, quadruple, qualify, quieten, quieten down, radiate, rain down, rank, rate, rattle, rearm, redouble, reflect, reform, refuel, register, relate, relax, reopen, reorganise, resettle, resolve, rest, restart, reunite, rev, rev up, revive, rewind, rhyme, ring, ripen, rock, roll, rotate, ruffle, run, rupture, rush (into), scuff, sell, separate, settle, sharpen up, shatter, shear off, shorten, shrivel, shut, shut down, shut up, shuttle, sign up, sink, slacken, slam, slew, slide, slim down, slop, slot, slow, slow up, slow down, slur, snap, sober up, soften, solidify, sound, speed up, spew, spill, spill out, spin, splash, splinter, split, split up, spray, spread, sprout, square with,
squeeze, stall, stampede, start, stick, stiffen (up), still, stir, stop, straighten, strengthen, stretch, strike up, submerge, substitute, suckle, suffocate, sweep, swell, swerve, swill, swing, swirl, swivel, tack, tan, tangle, taper, tarnish, taxi, tear, tense (up), terminate, thaw, thaw out, thicken, thin, thrash about, thump, tie in/up with, tighten, tilt, toll, toot, topple, touch, train, transfer, translate, transmute, treble, trickle, triple, turn, twang, twine, twirl, twist, unfold, unfurl, unify, unravel, unroll, unzip, vaporise, vibrate, waft, waggle, wake (up), waken, warm up, wash, weaken, wear away, wear down, wear out, weather, wed, whirl, widen, wind down, winter, withdraw, worsen, wrinkle

Anonymous said...

'One' does sound pretentious in spoken communication, no matter which English you use, but I use it regularly when writing. The written form is much more egalitarian; one does not write with an accent!

Charlotte said...

I'm a college student and often I was told not to use "I" when writting assignment. But I am also told that using active voice makes the essay more interesting than passive. Is there any way to replace a sentence like "I argue that..." to something without using "I" but still in active voice?

Andrea Duff said...

Hi Charlotte

How about 'It can be argued the use of the active makes a sentence stronger'; 'The most compelling argument for using the active is that it makes writing stronger'.

Or, even better,

Using the active voice makes writing stronger. This is supported by Bergmann et al... An example of this is...

You really can easily get away with not including first person in academic writing.

Peter J. Francis said...

What I find annoying is that MS Word and other grammar checkers I use when editing always flag passive voice constructions. I understand the value in writing in the active voice, but in academic writing the passive voice is commonly used.

Andrea Duff said...

I'm sure many share this as a pet peeve, Peter (me included!)

Best regards

GM said...

I'm an advocate of passive sentences. They are useful:

When you don’t want to reveal who was responsible (e.g. Bad advice was given.)

When the doer of the action is general, unknown or obvious (e.g. Pistachio nuts are grown in Iran.)

To put something you want to emphasize at the start of your sentence (e.g. An estimated 258,000 people were injured in alcohol-related crashes.)

To use the same subject twice (e.g. Martin crashed into the barrier and was tossed in the crowd.)

There are some more examples here: http://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/passive_sentences.htm

One? Stuffy. End of.

Andrea Duff said...

Thank you, GM, but what is making one smile today, is the fact that 'one' is winning!!! For the record, one doesn't believe in using the word 'one' in any type of writing, except when one attempts to make a satirical point about he use of the word 'one'.

Linda Bergmann said...

Here's something else that's interesting. Andrea (or someone) changed all my double quotation marks to single quotation marks. Doubles are correct in American English; singles here are correct in British English and(apparently)Australian English.

Andrea Duff said...

I did, I did!!! Guilty as charged, Linda (LOL). In Australia, the emphasis is on minimal punctuation so that in referencing, for example, 'we would always put our quotes in single-inverted commas'.

I am a great minimalist, because my background is in journalism. This means the sparest words and punctuation are encouraged.

You'll see the Aussies (not sure about the Kiwis) use the single and our US colleagues use the double. (My apologies, Linda, for changing.)

I am curious, though, there a global trend toward using single? Or am I just an over zealous editor?