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CUR 557 - Capstone Experience Development: Active Voice

Using Active Voice

Many instructors prefer your writing for their classes to be "active" rather than "passive." Writing in the active voice means that the subject of your sentence clearly performs the action expressed by the verb in the sentence.

Passive voice typically includes the use of "to be" verbs, including but not limited to:

  • are
  • were
  • is
  • will be

Keep in mind that it's impossible to completely avoid the use of these verbs, but that your writing should not be primarily built around their usage. As a general guideline, try to write in the active voice by default and, when unavoidable or with intention, use passive voice sparingly. 

Identifying Passive & Active Voice

Active voice: 

Subject + Action + Object = Active Voice

Active voice highlights the logical flow of the action, making it clear what subject is doing the action in the sentence.

(image from Ashford University Writing Center)

Why to Avoid Passive Voice

The biggest reason passive sentences can get you into trouble with your instructors is the vagueness of who is responsible for the action of the sentence: 

  • A study was conducted of job satisfaction and turnover.
    • Who did the conducting?

A lot of your writing in college focuses on the difference between the ideas of researchers and/or between your ideas and those of the researchers you are discussing. If you use passive voice too much, it causes confusion for the reader:

  • Research has been done to uphold and support this theory.
    • Who did the research? You? An author of one of your sources? Someone else entirely?

Some students use passive sentences to try and hide holes in their research:

  • The cotton gin was invented in the late eighteenth century. 
    • This student did not find out who invented the cotton gin.

Finally, passive sentences often just sound too wordy and indirect, making the reader work too hard. 

  • Since the wrapper was found in my roommate's trash, the assumption should be made that he ate my candy bar. 
    • It's much less clunky and much clearer to say: "Since I found the wrapper in my roommates trash, I should assume he ate my candy bar."

When Using Passive Voice is Appropriate

Active voice may be preferred, but it is not always best. In these situations, you might want to use passive voice.

  • When you want to focus on the object or recipient of the action rather than on the subject.
    • First-year students have been underserved by the university administration.
      • Here, the passive voice places the focus on first-year students rather than on the university administration.
      • First-year students may be your main topic. 
  • When the subject is unknown:
    • The cave paintings of Lascaux were made in the Upper Old Stone Age.
  • When the subject is irrelevant:
    • An experimental solar power plant will be built in Australia. 
      • We don't care who's building it, just in the fact that it is being built.
  • You are talking about a general truth:
    • Rules are made to be broken.
      • By whomever, whenever.
  • When writing about methods and data collection:
    • Using a convenience sample, 57 teachers were invited to participate in the study.