As we’ve mentioned, the passive voice can be a shifty operator—it can cover up its source, that is, who’s doing the acting, as this example shows:
- Passive: The papers will be graded according to the criteria stated in the syllabus.
- Graded by whom though?
- Active: The teacher will grade the papers according to the criteria stated in the syllabus.
It’s this ability to cover the actor or agent of the sentence that makes the passive voice a favorite of people in authority—policemen, city officials, and, yes, teachers. At any rate, you can see how the passive voice can cause wordiness, indirectness, and comprehension problems.
|Your figures have been reanalyzed in order to determine the coefficient of error. The results will be announced when the situation is judged appropriate.||Who analyzes, and who will announce?||We have reanalyzed your figures in order to determine the range of error. We will announce the results when the time is right.|
|With the price of housing at such inflated levels, those loans cannot be paid off in any shorter period of time.||Who can’t pay the loans off?||With the price of housing at such inflated levels, homeowners cannot pay off those loans in any shorter period of time.|
|After the arm of the hand-held stapler is pushed down, the blade from the magazine is raised by the top-leaf spring, and the magazine and base.||Who pushes it down, and who or what raises it?||After you push down on the arm of the hand-held stapler, the top-leaf spring raises the blade from the magazine, and the magazine and base move apart.|
|However, market share is being lost by 5.25-inch diskettes as is shown in the graph in Figure 2.||Who or what is losing market share, who or what shows it?||However, 5.25-inch diskettes are losing market share as the graph in Figure 2 shows.|
|For many years, federal regulations concerning the use of wire-tapping have been ignored. Only recently have tighter restrictions been imposed on the circumstances that warrant it.||Who has ignored the regulations, and who is now imposing them?||For many years, government officials have ignored federal regulations concerning the use of wire-tapping. Only recently has the federal government imposed tighter restrictions on the circumstances that warrant it.|
Convert these passive voice sentences into the active voice. Why is the active voice a better choice for each of these sentences?
- The process, which was essential for the experiment’s success, was completed by Enzo.
- The cake that I worked on all day long is being eaten by Justin.
- After the pattern has been applied to the fabric, work on the embroidery can be started.
- Enzo completed the process, which was essential for the experiment’s success.
- In the passive sentence, the which-clause makes the subject of the sentence excessively long. By converting the sentence to the active voice, the clause is moved to the predicate, which makes the sentence easier to understand.
- Justin is eating the cake that I worked on all day long.
- The active voice works better in this sentence for the same reasons as sentence one. It is also likely that you would want to put emphasis on Justin in this sentence. After all, he’s doing something that is (most likely) inconsiderate.
- After you apply the pattern to the fabric, you can start working on the embroidery.
- This sentence is likely found in a set of instructions, which are usually written directly to the reader. Addressing “you” and avoiding the passive voice will make the instructions feel more natural and accessible.
Don’t get the idea that the passive voice is always wrong and should never be used. It is a good writing technique when we don’t want to be bothered with an obvious or too-often-repeated subject and when we need to rearrange words in a sentence for emphasis. The next page will focus more on how and why to use the passive voice.