'When to use the active and passive voice in writing'

It may sound strange to hear that written sentences have voices, and even stranger to know that there are debates on which of the two – passive and active – is the better option when it comes to writing. This article gives a definition of both voices, as well as examples of situations when each can be used properly. 

What's the difference between the active and passive voice? 

"Voice" refers to the connection between the subject and the object of a sentence, which is linked through a verb. 

The active voice is so called because the subject of the sentence is the doer of an action that affects the sentence's object.

e.g. Julie baked a cake. 

In the above example, the subject/actor (Julie) performed the action (baked) on an object (cake). 

The passive voice, on the other hand, is when the object is acted upon by the subject of the sentence. 

e.g. The cake was baked by Julie. 

The object (cake) was the recipient of an action (baked), which was performed by the subject (Julie). 

One indicator that a sentence is written in the passive voice is that it comes with a "be" verb followed by a past participle. However, it is still possible for a sentence to be in the active voice despite having a form of the "be" verb in it. For instance, "I am eating a pie" is in the active voice despite the "be" verb ("am"). Another clue to look out for is the absence of an object in the sentence, which can indicate that this is written using the passive voice, although it is possible to have an active sentence without an object 

When do I use the active or the passive voice?

Some people believe that sentences should be written in the active voice whenever possible. This might be because doing so can make your writing more concise. As can be seen in the example above, the passive voice usually requires more words. When improperly written, it can also sound awkward and vague, especially when the subject of the sentence is only implied and not deliberately mentioned. 

However, this does not necessarily mean that using the passive voice should be avoided at all costs. It actually has its own uses. For instance, many authors use it as a tool in fiction writing. In particular, mystery writers are big fans of the passive voice since it allows them to conceal secrets within their stories. 

The lack of emphasis on the actor has also made the passive voice the primary choice when it comes to scientific or academic writing. While there has now been a shift in terms of allowing scientists to discuss the actions they have taken in the experiments they have conducted, the science field remains partial to the passive voice in order to maintain a tone of objectivity. This is because it does not put particular focus on individual perspective, and instead looks at the actions undertaken, as well as the results. 

In writing, always consider whether you should use the passive or active voice. It will depend on what you, the writer, want to convey: if you want to draw attention to the doer, use the passive voice; if your intent is to put the focus on the action, then you should go for the active voice.