Active and passive sentences
In academic and professional writing it is important to understand active and passive sentences because it is important to understand the advantages of each and to use them to best effect.
Sentences may be either actively or passively constructed (they are said to be in the active or passive ‘voice’).
An active sentence is one in which the subject is also the agent (or doer) of the action.
The sentence ‘Bill hit Joe.’ is an active construction, because the subject (‘Bill’) is also the agent of the action (‘hit’).
A passive sentence, by contrast, is one in which the subject is being acted upon.
The sentence ‘Joe was hit by Bill’ is a passive sentence, because the subject is the receiver, not the agent, of the action (‘Bill’ is the agent).
Identical information is being described in the two sentences, but where the active sentence focuses on Bill, the passive sentence focuses on Joe. This difference in focus influences the way in which the reader interprets the information in the sentence. If you wanted to draw the reader’s attention to Joe as a victim of violence, rather than to Bill’s act of violence, you would use the passive voice. And, vise versa, if you wanted to draw the reader’s attention to Bill’s act of violence, rather than Joe as a victim of violence, you would use the active voice.
When to use the passive voice
Generally speaking, the active voice is preferable to the passive, because it is more direct and uses fewer words. However, there are some occasions when the passive voice must be used. Three occasions are:
1. Focus on the receiver of an action
When the agent is less significant than the receiver of the action, it is more appropriate to use the passive voice.
In fact, when you choose between the active and the passive, you are choosing to give emphasis either to the agent or to the receiver of the action, and in this way you determine for the reader the comparative significance of the agent and the receiver. Consider the following accounts of a soccer match:
Arsenal fans would probably choose the passive because from their perspective Arsenal’s loss is more important than Manchester United’s win. Within an academic or professional context, you can use your understanding of this principle to subtly influence the reader towards your point of view.
2. Scientific Writing
The convention in scientific writing is to focus on the phenomena rather than the agent, who is presumed to be objective.
In some sciences, especially the social sciences, the agency of the observer is acknowledged and consequently the active voice is used; whenever you write, make sure you conform to the active/passive conventions of the discipline in which you are writing.
3. Agentless passive
The agentless passive is used when the agent of the action is unknown, cannot be easily identified, or is already understood or implied.
As these examples show, there are some cases in which using the passive voice is necessary or desirable, even though it takes up more words. Always remember that clear, precise communication is your primary objective as an academic or professional writer; conciseness is highly desirable, but it is secondary to clarity and precision.
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