The Passive Voice Essay
The Passive Voice
The English language has two voices--the active and the passive. The active voice and the passive voice differ in that a passive verb phrase has an additional auxiliary BE followed by an EN participle. In a sense, the English passive is "inflexible" when compared to the passive formation of other languages. For example, some languages use word order, verb inflections, and impersonal constructions to form the passive voice. In their book, The Grammar Book: ESL/EFL Teacher's Course, Celce-Murcia and Larson-Freeman demonstrate how the Bantu passive voice differs from the English passive voice. "Kingarwanda, a Bantu language, can make even a locative phrase the subject of the passive as in On the bus was eaten a sandwich by John, which would not be acceptable in English" (221). Furthermore, topicalization is another "grammar issue" which differs from language to language. In the Kingarwanda sentence, On the bus was eaten a sandwich by John, the center of attention or the topic of the sentence is the phrase On the bus. Since languages have different rules which govern topicalization, several languages may not accept On the bus as the topic of a sentence. In the book, Clear and Coherent Prose, William Vande Kopple discusses topicalization in the English language. Kopple states that the English language uses topicalizers to "fulfill special functions in essays" (41). Several of these functions are: focusing the reader's attention on a specific part of a sentence, expressing given or "old" information at the beginning of a sentence, marking changes in topics, and lastly, setting contrasts between one topic and another (41).
Since there are differences in topicalization and the formation of the passive voice, non-native speakers may have trouble with English usage rules. On the other hand, students of a foreign language can benefit by comparing the usage rules of their native tongue to the usage rules of a foreign tongue. In order to better understand the usage rules of the English passive voice, it is necessary to begin by examining the most common grammatical function order of English sentences, subject-verb-object.
Active and passive sentences
Subject-verb-object (S-V-O) is the basic structure of English sentences and defines the grammatical function order of active voice sentences. For example, I can handle Mary is a sentence in the active voice which demonstrates the S-V-O pattern. However, S-V-O is not the only sentence pattern of the English language; object-verb-subject (O-V-S) is an alternative pattern. For example, Mary, I can handle produces an O-V-S pattern.
In addition to the grammatical function of a sentence such as subject, verb, and object, each noun phrase in a sentence has a semantic role. Semantic roles are discussed in Finegan and Besnier's chapter on semantics (171). Several of the semantic roles Finegan and Besnier list are: agent, patient, experiencer, instrument, and locative (200)....
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Doctors stress the fact that staying active is a key strategy for maintaining good health. Did you know this tip applies not only to your health, but to essay writing too?
While you could certainly stay active by doing a few extra push-ups, that’s not exactly what I mean by staying active. In this case, staying active doesn’t refer to exercise. It means writing in active voice.
I’m sure you’ve heard the terms active voice and passive voice and have probably even heard that you should usually write in active voice (and avoid passive voice).
But what does that mean? And why should you even care? Let me explain.
Here are three things you need to know about passive voice in order to write a better essay.
What the Heck Are Active and Passive Voice, Anyway?
When you write in active voice, the subject is doing something. When you write in passive voice, the object of the sentence (what is being acted upon) becomes the subject.
Yeah, I know. Confusing. That’s why lots of people aren’t big fans of grammar.
Here’s an example to help clarify.
Active voice: Liam bought a new cell phone.
Here, “Liam” is the subject. He is the person doing something in the sentence (buying a new cell phone). “A new cell phone” is the object and is having something being done to it (the cell phone is being purchased).
Passive voice: A new cell phone was bought by Liam.
Here, the object, “a new cell phone,” has become the subject. Writing in passive voice makes this sentence awkward, and it’s easy to see why writing in active voice is generally preferred.
If this still doesn’t completely clarify the issue, check out this blog post on how to avoid writing in passive voice.
Now that you have a better sense of what passive and active voice are, let’s move on to those things you need to know in order to write a better essay.
Passive Voice: 3 Things You Need to Know for a Better Essay
You don’t always have to avoid passive voice. It has its place (more about that later), but it is important that you understand how and where you should (or shouldn’t) use it.
Let’s look at three important points.
#1 Passive voice can cause confusion
The sentence construction of passive voice can often leave readers confused and leave them wondering the exact meaning of your writing.
Here’s an example in passive voice:
In the meeting between students and the college president, a revised process for creating new on-campus student organizations was developed.
Sure, you know that a process was revised, but this sentence doesn’t tell you who revised the process. The students? The president? Both the students and the president together?
Let’s revise this sentence to active voice to eliminate any confusion:
In a recent meeting, the students and college president worked together to revise the process for creating new on-campus student organizations.
Not only is this sentence more specific, but it’s also a lot easier to read.
#2 Passive voice can lead to weak writing
Ever write a sentence like one of these?
- A lot of people were harmed.
- The elderly were cheated.
- Animals were treated poorly.
If you have, then you’re guilty of not only writing in passive voice, but also writing a generalized and weak sentence.
These types of sentences tell your readers very little. Your professor will think you haven’t done your research and that you’re simply writing these broad statements because you don’t have the facts to back them up.
In order to strengthen your writing, revise statements to active voice and add specific details.
Check out these revisions:
- Contaminated meat sickened 23 people.
- Last year, company XYZ stole more than $1 million from the elderly in Florida.
- Police found eight dogs in unsafe living conditions.
See? Don’t these sentences sound better? By writing in active voice, not only are the subjects of the sentences doing something, but they’re also specific subjects that demonstrate you have done your homework!
#3 Sometimes it’s okay to use passive voice
I’ve been writing about why you shouldn’t use passive voice, but technically, it is not grammatically incorrect. Your teachers won’t mark you down for incorrect grammar, but you might lose some style points.
Remember, active and passive voice are style issues. There are times when passive voice is a better option.
Here are four instances where passive voice can actually strengthen your writing.
1. If you don’t know the subject:
A backpack was left in the library. (The person who left the backpack is unknown.)
2. If the subject is irrelevant or not necessary for readers to know:
A new dorm is being built on campus. (If this sentence is written in a publication for students, it’s not necessary for students to know the name of the construction company building the dorm.)
3. If you want to be general or vague about the subject:
Three computers were stolen from the lab.(The police may not want to release the names of the person(s) who stole the computers.)
4. If you’re writing certain scientific reports:
Participants were asked to complete a series of five agility tests. (Some scientific reports prefer passive voice when describing research methods.)
In all of these cases, it makes sense to write in passive voice. The sentences are still clear, specific, and effective.
You Gotta Have Style
© 1951 John E. Reed (CC0 1.0, PD-PRE1978)
As we’ve learned, passive voice isn’t grammatically incorrect—it’s a matter of style.
Now that you’ve learned when you should and shouldn’t use passive voice, take the time to make sure your paper follows these other style guidelines:
Still wondering if you’ve used passive and active voice correctly? Need to know if your paper has style? Send it our way for some expert advice from a Kibin editor!
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