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Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

The voice of verbs

What are the differences between passive and active voice? When do you use them? Is there an advantage in using one over the other?

Choosing the "voice" of verb for a research paper – or for any form of writing – can be a tricky task. Voice in grammar, after all, can affect the way the verbs inflect, as well as where points of emphasis, intonations, and stress points may occur. In particular, voice affects the relationship between the action or the state that the verb expresses and the subjects or objects of that verb.

Differentiating between active voice and passive voice

If the subject of the sentence is the doer of the action, the verb is said to be in the active voice. Meanwhile, if the subject is the target – or the undergoes – of the action, the verb is said to be in the passive voice.

  • Paul ate the whole pizza. (The verb "ate" is expressed in the active voice, since the subject "Paul" is the doer of the action.)
  • The whole pizza was eaten by Paul. (The verb "eaten" is expressed in the passive voice, since the subject "the whole pizza" was the target of the action.)
  • More active voice examples

  • The family cooked a delicious barbecue meal last weekend.
  • She played Mahler's "Von der Jugend" to the guests at the parlor.
  • More passive voice examples

  • A delicious barbecue meal was cooked by the family last weekend.
  • Mahler's "Von der Jugend" was played by her to the guests at the parlor.
  • When to use the active voice or the passive voice

    Of the two, the active voice is the more commonly used in most forms of writing. (It might also be said that it's the normal voice when speaking in English.) It leaves no ambiguity as to who the subject of the sentence is, and what that subject is doing. However, while the use of the active voice – against the use of the passive voice – is typically counseled in high school as a rule, there will be times that the passive voice is needed.

    The passive voice is often used in cases wherein the author wishes to place emphasis on, or treat as the subject, the target or undergoes – instead of the doer – of the action. While it is not commonly used in research paper writing, the passive voice does figure itself more prominently in mystery and crime writing and reportage – especially if the doer of the action is not or cannot be known. ("The bank was robbed," "Hundreds were injured last Friday in a riot at the square.") It is also suitable for laboratory reports and mathematical expressions, helping sharpen focus on the content of the reports or expressions instead of on the researchers. ("Five of these plant species were taken indoors, away from the sunlight", "Two-hundred five was multiplied by two to arrive at four-hundred ten.")

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