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Active versus Passive Voice

Your English instructor has just assigned a writing project to the class and admonishes everyone to “use active voice in your writing.” You go to your next class, i.e., your microbiology class, and your instructor emphatically states that “you must use passive voice when writing laboratory reports.” So, what is active voice and passive voice? Why would you want to use one over the other?

Active voice in writing places the emphasis on the subject of the sentence as the one doing the action. A very simple example is as follows: “Jill ate some cookies.” Jill, the subject of the sentence, comes first and is clearly doing the action. That is, she ate cookies, which is the object of the sentence. Passive voice changes the emphasis of the sentence to the object by moving it to the place of the subject. In passive voice, the sentence would read, “Some cookies were eaten by Jill.” The object, i.e., “cookies,” moves to the front of the sentence. However, as the object, the cookies aren’t doing anything. They are only the recipients of Jill’s action.

Note that active voice is often preferred for several reasons. Even though sentences written in passive voice are grammatically correct, they are sometimes a bit awkward and certainly wordy. Look at our example. The active voice (i.e., “Jill ate some cookies”) is very straightforward and easy to understand. In contrast, the passive voice (i.e., “Some cookies were eaten by Jill”) uses more awkward phrasing and adds additional words to the sentence. Moreover, consider the following sentence in passive voice: “Some cookies were eaten.” This sentence does not even tell us who did the action.

However, in some instances, passive voice may be preferred. If you don’t know who did the action, you may want to phrase the sentence with passive voice (e.g., “The diamonds were stolen.”). This also places emphasis on the object, which may be desired. Also, scientific writing typically adopts the passive voice because it creates a more objective tone in the writing. However, note that it is becoming more acceptable to use active voice when describing the methods (e.g., “We identified the protein with a Western blot analysis”).

I would like to share one last word on active and passive voice. Regarding a quick and easy method to identify passive versus active voice, many blog writers have encouraged their readers to use the “zombie” test. This method may seem silly, but it works! If the sentence still makes sense after inserting the phrase “by zombies” immediately after the verb, the sentence is written in passive voice. Let’s go back to our first example – “Some cookies were eaten by Jill.” The zombie test tells us that “Some cookies were eaten [by zombies].” Indeed, this is passive voice. However, “Jill ate [by zombies]” changes the meaning of the sentence; therefore, it uses active voice.

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