Actively defending the passive

Illustration of pointing, accusatory fingers contrasted with an open book
Armaan Mumtaz/Senior Staff

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So, you’ve gotten your graded essay back, and you weren’t exactly content with the results. Perhaps you’ve gone through the in-line comments that your GSI left you, or perhaps you’re wondering what they meant when they wrote, “Avoid passive voice.” Perhaps the passive voice was criticized by your educators, having been associated with evasive and impersonal qualities. And while it’s considered a good rule of thumb to write in the active voice, writing in the passive voice can have its benefits.

If uncertainty about the difference between active and passive voice is still lingering, it’s best to have them defined. Active voice writing is when the subject of the sentence is acting upon its verb. This form of writing tends to make sentences more direct and personal, or nonevasive and personal, for that matter. Passive voice, in contrast, is when the subject of the sentence is being acted upon by its verb.

Still unsure about how to differentiate between the two? It may be helpful to begin by locating the subject of the claim. Once the subject has been located, determine whether the subject is acting the verb’s action or if it’s being acted upon by the verb. Some examples can clarify further.

Active voice examples:

“John eats a banana with no crust.”

“The people overthrew the government.” 

“Big Time Rush earned the award.”

In each of the examples, the subject of the sentence — whether that be “John,” “the people” or “Big Time Rush” — is performing the verb on the object. In the first example, the subject “John” is performing the verb “eats” on the object “a banana with no crust.” The same format applies to examples two and three: The subject performs the verb on the object. Rewriting these examples into passive voice can help clarify the difference between active and passive voice.

Passive voice examples: 

“A banana with no crust is eaten by John.”

“The government was overthrown by the people.”

“The award was earned by Big Time Rush.” 

In the active voice example, “John” is the subject who performs the action “eats.” However, in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence changes. “A banana with no crust” now becomes the subject that is acted upon by the verb “eaten.”

One way to determine whether you want to write in the active or passive voice is to decide what or who you want the focus of your sentence to be. For example, if you want your essay to home in on John, then the active voice might work best. However, if your essay focuses on new ways to describe common fruit, then the passive voice would be your best choice. 

Ever since I became a copy editor at The Daily Californian, I’ve made a habit out of paying close attention to the way in which articles are written. And from my experience, active voice is often unused when it comes to victim-blaming. 

Take a recent incident involving a group of middle school students harassing and bullying a Black classmate, for example. “(The mother’s) son’s inhaler was taken by a coach, (the son) was called racial and homophobic slurs, attacked with a BB gun, and forced to drink urine from a cup,” according to an NBC News article.

Rather than deliver this in the active voice — which would center the attackers on national news — this is written in the passive voice, ultimately centering the victim of the attack and placing his face and that of his family on national news. Rather than having the headline publicize the attackers, the headline reads, “Black middle school student forced to drink urine in bullying incident, mother says.” Just one of the many ways in which writing can be used to harm victims of abuse rather than protect them.