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What is the 'passive voice'?

Evelyn Levisohn

Jun 26, 2020

Many students want to find out how to avoid using the 'passive voice' in essays or academic writing. You might have received feedback along the lines of "using the passive voice can make your writing less authoritative, and more confusing and wordy. Consider switching to the active voice." But what is the passive voice, and how do you know when you're using it? That part isn't always clear. 

The passive voice simply means that the focus of the sentence is on the action taken, rather than the person or entity doing the action. It's more commonly used in very dry, formal texts - but is not necessarily incorrect, it's just not always the best for conveying meaning clearly. 


If you can go through your work and identify where you can change a passive voice sentence into an 'active' one, you'll notice the quality and readability of your work improve. It will make your writing more clear, concise and - you guessed it - active. 

So how can you tell if a sentence is 'active' or 'passive'?

When a sentence is written in the passive voice, the action being taken will come first in the sentence, e.g.

The student was helped by the teacher.

See how the action ('helped') came before the person (the teacher) doing the helping? To change this sentence to the active voice - and vastly improve it - you'd say, 'The teacher helped the student to improve their academic writing'. 

To see some more examples and practice for yourself, download our one-page PDF guide to identifying the passive voice.Download a free worksheet

Correct or appropriate uses of the passive voice

Sometimes, we might need to use the passive voice if we don't know, or don't want to state who performed an action, e.g.

All the donuts have been eaten! 



Similarly, in scientific reporting, we may need to use passive voice because we actually want the focus to be on the action, e.g.

5g of solids were added to the solution. The solution was heated to 95 degrees.


Avoiding the passive voice in an essay

When it comes to academic writing, it is best practice to use the active voice more often. Your sentences, meaning and overall essay will be easier to read and understand, and often your point will also be stronger and more authoritative.

So, when proofreading or editing your own work, try to notice when you have used passive voice and re-write your passive sentences into active ones. 

The Studiosity writing specialists can also help you identify instances of the passive voice in your writing - it forms part of their feedback. TIP: Make sure you select 'Choice of language' as a focus area when you submit your document for feedback. 

Many students already have free access to Studiosity's 24/7 Writing Feedback service thanks to their university, college or school. See if your institute is on the list, and submit your assignment today:

Students, you must first find your free access >>


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