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Skidmore College
The Skidmore Guide to Writing

Active and Passive Voice

Learn the difference between active and passive voice, and choose the right one for your essay.

Write actively, watch out for the passive voice.

In an active sentence, the subject performs the action. In a passive sentence, the action is being done to the subject.

          Active: Joe asked Jane to lend him her notebook.
          Passive: Jane was asked for her notebook.

          Active: He loves you
          Passive: You are loved.

          Active: The board of directors decided to fire you.
          Passive: It was decided that you would be fired.

Active sentences make your writing clearer. The passive voice, particularly when it's used over and over again, makes your writing hard to read.

Wordy, vague, and cluttered, the passive voice nevertheless has its uses. In a scientific experiment, for example, the name of the scientist is often unimportant.

"Sally boiled the water for five minutes" is active, directing our attention to Sally. But who cares about Sally? The passive construction, "The water was boiled for five minutes," correctly reveals the action without distracting, irrelevant information. In fact, the passive construction, because it eliminates the active subject, implies scientific objectivity. That's why, in the sciences and social sciences, readers will expect passive construction in some essays and reports.

For more hints on style and clarity click here.