Often, when you are writing in Microsoft Word, you will have certain sentences flagged up in the spellchecker as ‘passive’. The program tells you to consider changing this. Why? What is the passive voice, and is it such a bad thing?
The Active Voice
To understand what the passive voice is, first of all you have to understand what the active voice means. This is simple. It’s when the subject is doing the action: ‘Mary is making a strawberry jam sandwich’. Another example is the first line of that old Christmas tune by Bing Crosby: ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas’. The subject ‘I’ is doing something- ‘dreaming’.
The Passive Voice
To make a sentence passive, you have to switch the subject and the action. So ‘Mary is making a strawberry jam sandwich’ becomes ‘a strawberry jam sandwich is being made by Mary’.
To make ‘White Christmas’ passive, Bing Crosby would have to sing ‘A white Christmas is being dreamed of by me’. Not such a catchy opening line for a hit single.
So the basic difference between the two sentences is that the first is clearer and snappier, whilst the second obscures the subject by burying it in the middle of the sentence, or sometimes by omitting it altogether. We could just say ‘a strawberry jam sandwich is being made’. This way we give the detail without having to name Mary at all.
This can be used to great effect in mystery novels. In the sentence ‘the woman was shot’, we can reveal the incident without naming the culprit. Similarly, the passive voice is often used by politicians attempting to sidestep the blame for something: ‘bombs were dropped’ sounds much more innocent than ‘we dropped the bombs’.
So which should I use?
In an academic piece of writing, you will sometimes prefer to use the passive voice. This is because convention states that you should avoid the use of ‘I’ in academic writing. The reason? It makes the writing sound more objective and authoritative. Yes, of course, we all know that the writer of the paper is probably the one who carried out the tests but ‘I carried out several tests’ doesn’t sound nearly as professional as ‘several tests were carried out’.
The most important part of the text to avoid using ‘I’ in is the conclusion. It doesn’t sound very objective to say ‘I believe that exposure to Ebola causes the disease to spread’. This sounds like an opinion. Instead, you can put something like: ‘the data suggests that exposure to Ebola causes the disease to spread’. In this way it is the data (something objective) doing the suggesting rather than you.
For more advice on how to make your writing snappier, why not send it to the professionals at ProofreadMyDocument? They can check your work for all instances of the passive voice and advise you on where it is necessary.