Grammar in writing- When to use the active and passive voice

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We have another post for you this week! It’s all about the active and passive voice and when to use it.

First of all, the active voice is common in many of the world’s languages, including English and Bahasa Malaysia. You are using the active voice when you describe a subject performing an action (verb). It’s straightforward and easy to understand.

Here are examples of the active voice. I’ve italicised the verbs in each sentence for you.

The committee has approved the new policy.
Vanisri is drinking green tea.
Ali made a video.

Without getting too caught up on the technical aspects of the active voice, I’m now going to introduce the passive voice. You use the passive voice when you want to say a subject was acted upon (verb) by something or someone.

The new policy was approved by the committee.
The green tea was drank by Vanisri.
A video was made by Ali.

So in the active voice, the subject is the one who performs the action or the verb.
But in the passive voice, the subject does not perform the action, but it is acted upon.

Now you might be thinking, Okay, Amnah. This is just too confusing. Do I really need to know the difference between active and passive voice?

Okay, calm down. In most cases, you’re already using the active voice and you should be using it in most of your communication. But there are certain situations where it’s best to use the passive voice.

The passive voice is best used when the person doing the act is not really important but the process or principle being described is of ultimate importance. For example, the passive voice is almost always used in technical or scientific reports, in thesis writing or in business cases.

Here are a few examples.

1. Look at the difference between the two sentences that could be used for a science experiment report.

  • The active voice: “I poured 20 cc of sodium hydroxide into the beaker.”
  • The passive voice: “20 cc of sodium hydroxide was poured into the beaker.”

The passive voice would be preferred as the subject is the process and not the person doing the experiment.

This kind of reminds me of my days back in high school when we would write chemistry experiments in our notebook. The principle is the same.

  • The active voice: “Saya menuang 20 cc natrium hidroksida ke dalam bikar.”
  • The passive voice: “20 cc natrium hidroksida dituang ke dalam bikar.”

Do you see how the passive voice shifts the focus from the person doing the experiment to the actual process in the experiment? In both English and Bahasa Malaysia, the passive voice is preferred when you’re writing for something that’s technical.

2. Another example is when you’re writing a thesis. You should be using the passive voice instead of the active voice to describe any action that was taken.

  • The active voice: “We interviewed 100 people in a survey to find out the effects of living conditions on the family.”
  • The passive voice: “A hundred people were interviewed in a survey to find out the effects of living conditions on the family.”

Please take note that many research papers are now more accepting of using the active voice. If you’re writing a thesis, it’s best to consult with your supervisor if you intend to use the active voice in your writing.

I hope this post has been helpful. The key takeaway is that most of the time you’re using the active voice, but when you’re writing technical reports, a thesis or anything that focuses on the process or the procedure, it’s best to use the passive voice.

We’ll talk to you again next week!

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Hi there!

We’re Azimah, Amnah and Aisya from Malaysia. We created My English Matters as an online platform to help people improve their English.

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