Active and Passive Voice

What is passive voice?

In order to understand what passive voice is, consider the following examples:

  1. She shut the window to keep out the rain. (active voice)
  2. The window was shut to keep out the rain. (passive voice)

Example 1 is written in the active voice; in this case, the subject ("She") performs an action. Example 2 is written in the passive voice; in this instance, the subject receives the action. You can often identify passive voice by other indicators: the main verb in the sentence may be accompanied by the verb to be and a "by-phrase" that includes the subject, as in "My cashmere sweater was torn to pieces by my cat."

Most students have been told at some point in their English education that they should avoid using the passive voice. This is good advice and a helpful guideline, but it's not an absolute rule. Things would probably be easier if it were, but there are contexts in which passive voice is essential and the most appropriate rhetorical choice you can make. Here are a few examples:

  1. When the agent (i.e., the doer of the action) is unknown
    My computer was stolen. (instead of "Somebody stole my computer.")
  2. When the agent is obvious or common
    The thief was arrested. (instead of "A police officer arrested the thief.")
    Rice is eaten in Thailand. (instead of "Thai people eat rice.")
  3. When you want to conceal or hide the agent
    The window was broken. (instead of "Jim broke the window.")
  4. When you want to establish known-new contract (or cohesion between sentences)
    Jim is a nice person. However, he was hit by a car. (instead of "Jim is a nice person. However, a car hit him." Using active voice in this case would require changing topics and ultimately end up confusing the reader.) Click here for more on establishing cohesion through the known-new contract.
  5. When you write in certain genres, e.g., many types of scientific writing that by convention avoid the use of "I." In scientific genres, for example, the passive voice may be more appropriate because its use reflects the idea that the focus is on the experiment rather than the agent conducting the experiment.

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