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Subsection 7.3.3 Using Passive Constructions Cautiously

The passive voice is passive because sentences in this structure de-emphasize the role of the actor in a sentence. An active sentence puts the actor front and center (“Sally hugged Barbara”) whereas a passive sentence holds the actor less prominently and places the action/object acted upon front and center (“Barbara was hugged by Sally”). The active sentence emphasizes Sally as the actor, whereas the passive sentence emphasizes that Barbara received a hug. Note that passive constructions can only occur in sentences with transitive verbs, which take direct objects.

Example 7.3.4. Active Versus Passive Voice.

Here are more sentences written in both active and passive voice, for comparison.

Active

“Sally hugged Barbara.”

Passive

“Barbara was hugged by Sally.”

Active

“I did my homework.”

Passive

“My homework was done by me.”

Active

“My roommate woke me up as she got ready for crew practice.”

Passive

“I was woken up by my roommate as she got ready for crew practice.”

Active

“We made mistakes.”

Passive

“Mistakes were made.”

(Notice how this form completely omits the actor: Who made the mistakes? We don't know! They just were made. . .)

In the lower-right corner of this graphic is the title "Active" and the sentence, "Sally hugged Barbara." A curved arrow connects "Sally" to "Barbara." In the upper right corner is the title "Passive" and the sentence, "Barbara was hugged by Sally." A curved arrow connects the word "was" and the word "by."
List 7.3.5. Strategies for Identifying Passive Voice

Below are some ways you can identify the passive voice. Please note that these tips are general guidelines, not concrete characteristics of every instance of passive voice.

  • Look for “to be” verbs.

    The passive voice is often constructed in this format: “to be” + past participle. Notice that the previous sentence is passive. It has “is” as the form of “to be” and “constructed” as the past participle.

  • Look for “by” + a noun/pronoun/proper noun.

    As with the example “Barbara was hugged by Sally,” passive sentences often use the word “by” to show that someone or something carried out the action. Barbara wasn't just hugged, she was hugged by Sally.

  • Check out an example: Juxtaposing Passive and Active Voice.

While the passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, most readers (and professors) prefer the active voice because readers generally want to identify the action happening in a piece of writing. Since the active voice makes it easier to identify what is happening and who or what is acting, the active voice usually makes more sense as a writing style.

Example 7.3.6. Juxtaposing Passive and Active Voice.

Consider these two sentences:

Passive

“We were asked by the flight attendant to have our luggage put in the overhead compartment by a man next to us who went by the name of Jim.”

Active

“The flight attendant asked us to have Jim, the man sitting next to us, put our luggage in the overhead compartment.”

In both examples, there are three main people: us (the writer), the flight attendant, and Jim. The first example, the one in the passive voice, becomes long and confusing. The reader will have forgotten who asked whom to do what by the time Jim's name comes up. The second example, however, more clearly explains the scenario because there is less confusion about who is doing what.

Note 7.3.7.

The large exception to these preferences is science. More scientific work tends to be written in the passive voice. An active version of the previous sentence would be, “More scientists tend to write in the passive voice.” Notice how the first version, the passive one, takes the actor out of the sentence completely. Who does the passive writing in the sciences? The active version answers that question: scientists write in the passive voice in science writing. Sciences tend to use the passive voice to distance the scientist from the science being done. The passive voice is therefore used strategically by the sciences. (Again, the previous sentence could also be active: “The sciences (or scientists) therefore use the passive voice strategically.”) This convention still varies across disciplines and even in different sections of the same lab report; be sure to check with your professor for their preferences!

Example 7.3.8. Passive Voice for Lab Reports.

Active

“We summarized the melting and boiling points of the four compounds in Figure 1.”

Passive

“The melting and boiling points of the four compounds are summarized in Figure 1.”

Active

“We rinsed the solid with ethanol (10.0 mL, 1M) and dried it with vacuum filtration.”

Passive

“The solid was rinsed with ethanol (10.0 mL, 1M) and dried with vacuum filtration.”

Note that constructions like “were rinsed” and “are summarized” are very useful in this kind of writing. Also, the verb often appears towards the end of the sentence, after the object it is acting upon. Following these patterns can help you get comfortable with passive voice. Reading scientific literature and becoming familiar with the tone is also a great way to improve your scientific writing.