College Writing Advice: Active Voice Versus Passive Voice

College Writing Advice: Active Voice Versus Passive Voice


It’s your first week of university. You’re frightened, confused even. You live in a world without labor rights, where the rich gobble the poor like Triscuits. You know everything depends on a college degree. You dream of being a 22/22/22 - a twenty-two year old who works twenty-two hours a days and receives, in compensation, $22,000 a year. It’s a big dream, but, then again, your parents taught you to dream big. All those afternoons they let you to watch "Ice Age" and lap grape jelly weren’t for nothing, after all.

But to be a 22/22/22 you need to write - and write well. Writing well means knowing about voice, active and passive. (This gets complicated. It requires “Big Thinks,” so don’t hesitate to slurp down some Powerade for extra stamina.)

In active voice the object receives the action denoted by the verb. Here’s an example:

  • Feeling faint, the young girl guzzled a bottle of Yoo-Hoo.

With passive voice the subject receives the action. See here:

  • A bottle of Yoo-Hoo was guzzled by the faint-feeling girl.

Now when to use passive and when to use active voice can be tricky. The passive voice can often lend a sense of ease and propriety to a passage:

The Manhattan Project in 1942 set out to build a uranium chain-reactor of critical size at the University of Chicago. By that time some six tons of pure uranium were available; this was eked out with uranium oxide. Alternate layers of uranium and graphite were laid down one on the other, with holes through them for insertion of the cadmium control rods. This structure was called a ‘pile’ - a non-committal code name which did not give away its function.”

Had the author chosen the active voice, the passage would read quite differently:

In 1941, Professor Urey and his associates at Columbia University and other physicists elsewhere conducted experiments with uranium-graphite mixtures, and they gathered enough information to lead them to decide that even without enriched uranium, someone might set up a chain-reaction if only someone else made the lump of uranium large enough.

In the right context, passive voice can lend great elegance to prose. And it is especially important when dealing with problems of continuity. Where interest is continuously focused on one person or object, voice may vary from active to passive as the central figure acts or is acted upon. Take a look at this example taken from a case history:

A few days after Johnny’s arrival at the home he ran away after becoming involved in a series of thefts from parked cars, along with two older boys from the home. In court, at Baldwin, Johnny cried continuously for three quarters of an hour. He had been treated roughly, he said, had been glared at at the table and whipped for picking grapes from the vines in the yard. He had not wanted to stay in this place, so he had committed the thefts in the hope that he would be transferred immediately. Then he had become frightened and ran away.

We’ll stop here. Likely your brain is as jiggly as jelly! Don’t worry; Big Thinks take a few hours to settle in. By tomorrow morning you’ll be writing with style, grace and wit, ready for the big splash you’ll make at that most prestigious of virtual places, an online university. 

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