Passive or Active? How to Choose the Correct Writing Voice

Instructors: Use this exercise on passive voice as a short and simple change-of-pace task. Let your students work in teams to discuss the mini-quiz questions that follow the explanation. An answer key is provided [Ed: Passive voice intentionally used!] Project the exercise on a screen or use the JPEG version at the end of the post.

Many writers unknowingly use passive voice, which can make their prose wordy and lifeless. However, the passive voice has its place in the writer’s toolbox, and when used correctly, can be useful. Good writers understand what passive voice is and how to use it effectively.

Simply put, passive voice puts the person or thing being acted upon first and the doer or agent second. In fact, the doer or agent is often left out entirely. For example:

The ball was hit by the girl.

The ball is being acted upon by the girl, so the receiver of the action (the ball) is the doer. However, readers of English expect sentences to begin with the doer, not the action.  The above sentence would read better in active voice:

The girl hit the ball.

In most passive voice sentences, the doer is in the background or disappears completely. Sometimes we do not know who or what the doer or agent is. Other times, naming the doer is not important. For example:

The students were given a test.

Who performed the action? The doer is not named.

Other times we deliberately do not want to assign responsibility or blame to the doer or agent, thus:

Mistakes were made.

In this case the writer has chosen not to assign an actor to the action because the writer does not want to name an individual.

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Passive Voice Quiz

Read the sentences below and decide whether using passive voice was used deliberately or inappropriately. Provide a rationale for your choice and check your answers with the key that follows the sentences.

1.    The files were misplaced and had to be rewritten from scratch.
2.    A statement about the oil spill will be made at the press conference.
3.    New Years’ resolutions are made to be broken.
4.    A lateral incision was made to expose the mass.
5.    In the factory, the bolts were attached by robots.

Passive Voice Answer Key

  1. Appropriate use of passive. Who misplaced the files? Who had to rewrite them? In both cases, the doer is unknown. When you do not know or don’t wish to reveal the doer, using passive voice is appropriate.
  2. Appropriate use of passive. Who is making the statement? The doer is unnamed deliberately. When you do not want to draw attention to the doer, passive voice is the correct choice.
  3. Appropriate use of passive. The reader can intuit that people who make New Years’ resolutions are the doers in the sentence, but when the doer is comprised of many people, using the active voice can be awkward. Consider the same sentence in active voice:

People who make New Year’s resolutions make them to be broken.

       In this case, use of passive construction is preferred.

  1. Appropriate use of passive. Scientists and researchers often use passive voice by intentionally removing the doer to make their prose appear more objective.
  1. Inappropriate use of passive. The sentence reads better when written in active voice:

In the factory, robots attached the bolts.

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Download a PDF of the PassiveVoiceExercise and PassiveVoiceExerciseKey

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